Stéphane Bussard, former Le Temps US correspondent in New York, and Caspian Makan, fiancé of the late Neda Agha Soltan, who was murdered in the streets of Iran in 2009 for speaking up and protesting against the Iranian regime, address the 2nd Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy – see below for full prepared remarks.
Stephane Bussard: I have the honor to welcome you to the Conference Center of Geneva to talk about human rights. We will be focusing, most particularly, on a particular case, that of Iran. In this regard we are lucky enough to have three speakers. To begin with, Caspian Makan who is a human rights activist and once the fiancé of Neda Agha Soltan. I think everyone knows who I’m talking about because this has gone around the world thanks to the Internet on the 20th of June when she was killed during the post electoral events in Tehran. We also have on our panel Shaheen Sariri, who is the Director of External Relations of Human Rights Activists in Iran. And, David Suurland, who is doing a PhD and is a specialist on Internet freedom in Iran, so we will be focusing on the internet here.
I would like to introduce the subject. We have heard for quite a while now about Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. We have also heard about all the different points of the nuclear program in Iran and something new has appeared with the electoral campaign and the green movement, as we know it.
This movement has been quite impressive, and is continuing even after the contested elections of the 12th of June. It’s interesting to hear the young people who spoke after this campaign. Some said every single drop counts to make an ocean, and it’s true. Within this green movement we should recognize that there are extremely different hopes that have been expressed; there have been hopes for a change of regime or for improvement changes within the Islamic Republic. This movement is not necessarily an organized one and people hold many different views. What particularly marked us last year when these demonstrations took place – and which continued quite a while until 31st anniversary of the Iranian Revolution – was that there were many occasions, such as the “Shura,” that enabled this protest to continue. And what struck us, as I was saying, was the use of new technologies. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, were all used to broadcast images that we could see in cities in Iran. A professor was telling me this was the third technological revolution. The first was the constitutional revolution of 1906, when the Telegraph played an important role. And then the 1979 revolution with cassettes because Khomeini had returned to Iran; tapes were used to advance the cause. And now, it was the new internet technologies. And we will be talking about this with David in a little while.
This situation in Iran since last year’s elections has changed greatly. We now have a slightly weakened regime with a supreme leader who has been regularly contested by the green movement. And at the 31st anniversary of the Revolution, we saw that there is a repressive apparatus that has been set up. And now we are wondering where this is going to go and the green revolutionists think abreast of the situation.
Now concerning the attitude of the regime, what has struck me recently, was that as Ebrahim Yazdi was arrested, he was their Prime Minister of Foreign Affairs under Khomeini. He was an important figure at the time. He no longer has great clout in Iran. He is moreover quite ill. He was arrested a few weeks ago and that is a reflection of how weak the regime has become.
I will stop here. I will give the floor to the speakers and to Caspian Makan to begin, who will be giving us his painful personal account. I’ll give him the floor.
Caspian Makan: I’ve been asked to speak about a very important question. I was born in 1972 in Tehran and when I started school it was 1979. And that coincided with the religious revolution under Mr. Khomeini. At that time, the schools had to close their doors; everything had stopped in the country. And, even though Islam was present at the time, nobody had really realized what this implied when an Islamic authority took power. And people were receptive to the promises made. They thought that there would be more well-being, they thought that they would be better off, they thought there would have been more political freedom and that would be added to further freedoms. Therefore, they supported the guide of the Revolution.
The first thing that was done was to have the preceding government officiald step down, to have them either tortured or killed without trial. Now my parents were civil servants under the preceding regime and they were also sanctioned and their lives were put in danger. But, my father was able to convince them that they were wrong and he saved all of our lives.
People had to line up in a very harsh winter in order to buy basic staples. But they took to the streets to demonstrate and our life was turned topsy-turvy. After a few months, schools opened again, but meanwhile everything had changed. I’d never seen such things before; the girls who had been part of our class before were separated; they were sent to a special school. Our teachers had to dress strangely, wear strange attire. They had to hide their hair, hide their bodies…
A lot of the books changed as well. For example, the way they taught history; we had to learn Arabic, the Quran and other Islamic subjects and the life of Mr. Khomeini became a compulsory subject as well. There was a great change that the population was subjected to. People would disappear and slowly pressure built up to control people’s opinion. If there was an ideology that anyone held that ran counter to Islam, that person was imprisoned or murdered.
I remember I was 8 years old and I had begun a political discussion with my music teacher, and I was expelled from my music class, but I was not discouraged. I felt I had a role to play in society. I tried to understand what was going on politically and socially in Iran. I would attend public events; I visited cemeteries, I visited hospitals, I went to conferences, I would talk with the Mullah – the clergy – the different supporters of the regime. I was not afraid, I would strike a conversation up.
I studied architecture and film. And, I continued my work as a writer, as a poet. I wrote documentaries. I was a journalist and a photographer. But, due to the pressure that was placed on people and on society I wanted to reflect what was happening politically and socially through my poems, in my films, in everything I wrote. I was threatened, I was censured and I was arrested for short periods of time. And I realized that I wouldn’t be able to continue my activities. So I focused more on nature and on history but I still kept trying to take a short glance at politics. I studied different religions secretly and then I decided to change religions.
In 1983 in Iran, Neda Agha Soltan was born. Her father was a civil servant and he was a musician. She was very intelligent, she was very honest, she was very sincere. She had a very sharp mind; she was an intellectual. She was well ahead of her times and she was precocious for her age intellectually; I was impressed by her. She never got angry when people behaved badly, rather she became saddened by this. She was a deep thinker and she was really a source of joy for all around her. We met on a trip, we struck up a conversation. We were talking about the beauty of nature and the creation that God had made and then we went on to talk about other points and little by little things continued and finally we decided to marry. She was an artist at heart. She was very curious about different religions, about the different visions that people held of different religions and she decided to study, for this reason, theology. But after a while, she realized that superficial knowledge counted more at University rather than the reason for wanting to study. And she spent a lot of time talking with the management of the University about dress codes or superficial matters like this and therefore she decided to drop her studies at University and study art as she wished.
She enjoyed talking about the different pressures that were being placed now on Iranian society, above all [on] young people. She suffered a great deal from these useless restrictions and she felt this was part of superstition, that it was something from the Middle Ages. She suffered from the lack of freedom in society and wondered why this had happened. She wondered why no one would react, why people didn’t speak up and complain, explain their dissatisfaction. She wondered what the end result would be and what would end up happening. What marked her as being different from other people of generations was that she tried to find solutions, not only did she raise questions.
And then the presidential elections arrived and at that point there was a campaign by the different candidates and Neda rejected the regime. And she felt it wasn’t a matter of individuals; she felt that all the candidates were more or less the same. In any case, she thought the people’s vote didn’t matter. It was just a show. She felt it was always a charade in Iran. The regime had already designated its candidate and the die was – to some degree – already cast and there was no need to vote. She had never voted and I agreed with her. And that’s why I have never participated in the elections because we thought if we did we would be supporting the regime to some extent and that’s what the leader said moreover. They said that the people as a block had voted to support the government. She felt that they were fooling people. They were exploiting their naivete; they used fraud. That’s why before the campaign began, the authorities had given out instructions to the police to ease up on the population, to stop pressuring the population. Coupons were given out at that time so people could buy food. So the pressure eased up. A lot of the young people didn’t know who Mr. Musavi – who was one of the candidates – actually was. They didn’t know his past. They didn’t know that he had been a Prime Minister in the past and that he had contributed to the extermination of thousands of intellectual dissidents and political prisoners. They only heard about him when he had already been transformed, been reborn, and they were fascinated by what he was saying. Young people, above all, wanted to get rid of Mr. Ahmadinejad. Most people said, “we have to choose between the lesser evil.” People took to the streets to express their joy and no one bothered them. The situation was less tense.