Observers Fear New Intellectual Crackdown in Iran

Some observers fear a new round of crackdowns on intellectuals is taking place in Iran. They point to a prominent Iranian scholar who has been held in a Tehran prison for more than three weeks. The government has not leveled specific charges against the man.

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Late last month, a prominent Iranian scholar went to the airport in Tehran. He intended to take an airplane to Brussels. But before he could board that flight out of the country, Iranian authorities detained him. Three weeks later, he's still in custody, apparently, without formal charges. His name is Ramin Jahanbegloo, and his supporters say his detention is part of a crackdown on intellectuals and activists.

From Tehran, NPR's Mike Schuster sent us a profile of an intellectual behind bars.

MIKE SHUSTER reporting:

Ramin Jahanbegloo is well known among Iranian intellectuals - a philosopher, a writer, and a lecturer. He was educated at the Sorbonne in Paris and at Harvard. His focus for many years has been on the issue of democracy in Iran. In an interview with NPR in Tehran in 1995 - when he was editor of the journal called Guftagoo(ph), or Dialogue - Jahanbegloo spoke about what democracy means for Iran.

Dr. RAMIN JAHANBEGLOO (Iranian Intellectual): To be democratic, you have to change your values. You have to change your attitude toward life, and toward society in which you're living. That's the main challenge we have today in Iran. What is important for me is not which government is in place, that's important also. But it's the way the citizens of this country, they are going to react toward this government.

SHUSTER: The Iranian government has not leveled specific charges against Jahanbegloo, but the Minister of Information has been quoted as saying, "The arrest was connected to his contact with foreigners." Although he was born in Iran, Jahanbegloo carries a Canadian passport. One conservative newspaper wrote that Jahanbegloo was part of a U.S. plot to overthrow the regime, under the guise of intellectual work.

Mohammed Fadaifard, of the Foreign Ministry here, said yesterday that Jahanbegloo's Canadian passport provided him with no special protection.

Mr. MOHAMMED FADAIFARD (Foreign Ministry, Iran): He's not arrested because of his writings, because of his contacts, nor because of his statements. The Minister of Information mentioned his case do something with the national security.

SHUSTER: According to friends, Jahanbegloo has been kept in solitary confinement in Evin Prison in Tehran. He has not been provided with legal representation, and he has not been permitted to see his family. He is the father of a seven-month-old daughter. Friends report that his elderly mother was admitted to the cardiac unit of a local hospital after learning of his arrest.

Until now, this case has not captured much attention in Tehran. His friends have been reluctant to publicize it in the hope of gaining his quick release. Even the more moderate press here has played down the case. Mohammad Atrianfar, editor of Sharq, a daily newspaper, said at first the authorities told him not to worry.

Mr. MOHAMMAD ATRIANFAR (Editor, Sharq Newspaper): (Through Translator) They gave me an unofficial answer that this is not a major problem. Of course, whenever such cases are taken to the media, and there are lots of talk about such cases in the media, what happens usually, the case gets harder and harder.

SHUSTER: Jahanbegloo's has not been the only recent arrest in Tehran. Several student activists have also been detained. And Hossein Seifzadeh, a professor of politics at Tehran University who travels frequently to the United States, says he was summoned by the Security Services three times in the past year. But his encounters were benign.

Professor HOSSEIN SEIFZADEH (Political Science, Tehran University): They were nice to me. They were very nice to me. And I thought they want to tell me something, as they said they awaken me from my, let's say, numbness. That is what they said.

SHUSTER: Jahanbegloo left Iran to teach in Canada in 1997 when the more moderate Mohammad Khatimi was elected Iran's president. At that time, he described himself not as an opposition political figure, but as an intellectual looking inward for solutions to Iran's political problems.

Dr. JAHANBEGLOO: I myself, I really don't what's going to be the future of Iran. It's so difficult to talk about this country when you talk about politics. And I cannot say I'm not interested in politics, but I'm not a political activist. So I've never been very active, politically. I've always tried to solve political problems through cultural way of questioning life.

SHUSTER: Now, more than 400 scholars and writers from around the world have signed a letter to Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, appealing for Jahanbegloo's release.

Mike Shuster, NPR News, Tehran.

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