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Tabarzadi: The Man Who Brings Secular Democracy to Iran

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"Mr. Mandela's struggles as a political activist and prisoner, only after being amplified by the pressures from the International community, resulted in his freedom and abolition of apartheid in South Africa. Today, women, who represent 50 per cent of the Iranian population are facing gender apartheid; not to mention the violation of the basic rights of minorities, ethnicities and many others." -- Heshmat Tabarzadi

It really took me a few months before I could start writing for Huffington Post. I was always wondering how to start my first piece and what to write. But when I learned the death of one of my heroes, Nelson Mandela, I couldn't wait any more and posted my first blog piece about how Mandela, a great leader for democracy, inspired me to fight for democracy in Iran.

It is not an exaggeration to say that Heshmat Tabarzadi, an Iranian democracy leader, is an inspiration for my fight as well. Tabarzadi is another great leader, who spent more than ten years in prison and was arrested again last week in Iran.

The above quote is from Mr. Tabarzadi's article, which was written shortly before his arrest. I would like to talk about him and how Tabarzadi's voice is an echo of the Iranian people's voice. Heshmat is one of the most respected figures in contemporary Iran because of his long fight for human rights and democracy. The Iranian regime prefers to keep him in jail like the green movement leaders Mousavi, Rahnavard and Karroubi.

Tabarzadi is not just a secular democracy leader, but a voice for Iranian dissidents and their demands. He is known as the leader of secular democracy movement in Iran. He declared that the regime is not reformable and has been promoting secular democracy since 1999.

In 1998 I was a student and joined his fight for secular democracy. He bravely helped the student movement take shape independently. With few other student activists, we started the first independent organized student movement in Iran and formed the "United Student Front" in 1998, after president Khatami came to power.

Before the 2009 post-election protests, the student uprising in July 1999 was the most widespread protest that occurred in Iran since the early years of the Iranian Revolution. These one-week protests were violently suppressed by Iranian regime and activists of "United Student Front" were put in solitary confinements under torture. Tabarzadi was jailed prior to protests but his name appeared on Intelligence service's public statement as a leader of protests. I spent 60 days in solitary confinement in an unknown detention center where we found out later that it was the intelligence ministry's most-used detention center for torturing and obtaining confessions from political prisoners, called "Toohid prison."

Toohid prison was shot down after we publicly exposed its whereabouts and conditions. Tabarzadi had a major role in exposing this place by speaking out for detainees and publishing the news of tortures and mistreatment that occurred inside that facility. Then "The Student Committee for the Defense of Political Prisoners" was founded to gather information about prisoners, secret detentions and to defend their rights. Through this committee we worked together to campaign for political prisoners publicly after years of silence due to repressions.

Since 1999, Tabarzadi had a major role in advancing and organizing the democracy movements in Iran. Every year, he spent part of the year in prison and solitary confinements and was tortured on several occasions. Meanwhile, his different popular publications were shut down and he was denied the right to peaceful participation in non-governmental organizations and prohibited from any social activities for 10 years.

Tabarzadi truly unveiled the real face of Iranian regime during his fight for democracy in public events, publications and interviews. He warns us that Iranian regime which treats its own citizens in such a brutish way is not reliable. The increasing number of executions since the election of the so-called "moderate" Hassan Rouhani to the presidency is a confirmation of this mistrust. He also supported smart and well-targeted sanctions against the Islamic Republic of Iran which led to president Rouhani's deal with 5+1 Powers on its nuclear deal. Tabarzadi hopes that this deal does not make 5+1 blind to human rights situation.

Despite all the difficulties, Tabarzadi aimed to unite the opposition groups from the inside of the country and founded the "Iranian Democratic Front" of which thousands of activists became members and supporters. Tabarzadi and other members of "Iranian Democratic Front" started a widespread dialogue with the representatives of other groups which resulted in creation of "Solidarity Council for Human Rights and Democracy in Iran" in late 2008, only a few months before June 2009 post-election protests -- called the "green movement."

Members of this council, such as the human rights lawyer, Nasrin Sotoudeh, were arrested following the post-election protests. Tabarzadi himself was again arrested in October 2010 and sentenced to eight years in prison, convicted of five charges of "insulting the Supreme Leader," "insulting the President," "propaganda against the regime," "gathering and colluding with intent to harm the state security," and "disturbing public order."

Last year, after spending four years of his verdict, Tabarzadi was released on a temporary leave with the condition of remaining silent. However, he broke his silence recently and called for a united campaign demanding "no to executions and freedom of all political prisoners."

Shortly after, he received a phone call from the prosecutor's office, demanding him to report back to the prison. Tabarzadi engaged in civil disobedience and did not surrender himself to the authorities. He declared that if anyone should stand trial, it should be those who are in violation of my rights and many other political prisoners who have been denied their most basic legal, civil and human rights.

On January 15, 2014 Heshmat Tabarzadi was once again arrested and incarcerated. It is the responsibility of anyone who really cares about human rights to condemn his imprisonment. He is an important voice for the Iranian people and I hope that international community pay careful attention to his words and actions.

It was an honor for me to present ICHR 2011 Human Rights Award to Tabarzadi at ICHR annual gala as he was in prison.