Today marks Zia Nabavi's 29th birthday. This is the fourth consecutive birthday the university student activist is spending in prison. He was arrested at a relative's house on June 15, 2009, following his participation in a peaceful post-election protest. He's been trapped in prison since then.
Zia received one of the top scores in the country on his university entrance exam and graduated from the Babol Noshirvani University of Technology with a degree in Chemical Engineering. While he was completing his master's in Sociology, Iranian regime authorities labelled him a "starred" student, which meant he was banned from continuing his education.
Following the ban, Zia became more active in pursuing students' right to education. He frequently visited the admission's office and made unsuccessful attempts to convince officials to allow him to study again. On a positive note, Zia's persistent efforts led him to meet other starred students. They quickly united and coordinated their efforts to form an organization called the Advocacy Council for the Right to Education (ACRE). One of the main goals of ACRE was to prove to authorities that the actions of starred student activists were peaceful and did not violate the laws of the country. The greatest challenge they faced was finding ways to convince authorities, specifically Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's government, to admit that starred students exist in the first place. Sadly, to date, Iranian regime officials continue to deny the existence of starred students. Read this report by ACRE for more information on starred students.
In the days leading to the June 2009 Iranian Presidential election, student activists held several demonstrations -- mainly outside the Ministry of Advanced Education building, the state television and radio building, and the University of Tehran -- to expose the regime's lies by proving starred students do exist.
Weeks before the election the regime had lifted some restrictions on censorship to help create the illusion of freedom of speech in Iran. During that time even the ban on Facebook was temporarily lifted. Presidential candidate, Mehdi Karroubi took advantage of the more open atmosphere and pushed Iran's state-controlled media to air a revealing video about the existence of starred students. Though the move helped raise national awareness on the issue it also outraged regime hardliners.
Following the announcement of the rigged election results many Iranian activists were arrested, including members of ACRE, and issued outlandish prison sentences. Shiva Nazar Ahari, Saeed Jalalifar, Majid Dori, and Zia Nabavi are ACRE members still locked up behind bars.
The Iranian judiciary initially issued Zia a sentence of 15 years in prison and 74 lashes. His charges, like in the case of Iranian political prisoners, were bogus: "Conspiracy to act against national security," "Propaganda against the regime," "Disturbance of public order," "Agitation of the public mind," and "Moharebeh (waging war against God) through collaboration with the MEK." In the appeals court hearing, the charges against him were dropped, all except for Moharebeh (Learn more about Moharebeh in this UN report) His sentence was changed to 10 years in prison exile.
After hearing the appeals court's decision, Zia wrote a letter to the head of Iran's Judiciary titled, "I am not a Mohareb." He explained that the charges laid against him are so ludicrous that the whole situation "resembles a joke." He elaborated:
"It's clear my charges were connected to my activities with the Advocacy Council for the Right to Education, because that was the basis of my interrogation. If we accept the verdict issued by the [courts regarding the] Moharebeh charge, then we can conclude that the charge against me is 'Waging war against God through defending the right to education'. Does the judicial system really regard defending the right to education equivalent to a fight against the Islamic establishment?"
However, the Judiciary had used the excuse that Zia had family members in Camp Ashraf as grounds to issue him the Moharebeh charge. Until recently Camp Ashraf, located in Iraq, was home to more than three thousand members of the MEK. In the same letter he wrote:
"...my familial background was mentioned as grounds for the charges against me...Is it not evident that each person may only be responsible for [their] own actions? Family ties, which one has no control, power, or responsibility over, cannot be the premises for issuing charges. Do we have such a problem with the system of creation that we accuse and even condemn people based on their familial background?"
The Iranian regime authorities could not openly admit to arresting and imprisoning students for pursuing education rights, so they searched for any excuse to keep them locked up. In Zia's case, they accused him of acting under the influence of the MEK.
Zia was held in Tehran's Evin Prison for more than a year before he was abruptly and unlawfully transferred to Ahwaz's Karoun Prison in September 2010. Upon arrival, Iranian authorities severely beat him and sent him to solitary confinement for 48 hours. Since then Zia has endured some of the most brutal prison conditions while held with drug addicts and dangerous criminals.
Though Zia's conditions in prison have slightly improved, he was living in deplorable conditions for months. He wrote a shocking letter to the Head of the Human Rights Council of Iran's Judiciary detailing the gruesomeness. Here is an excerpt:
"I'm grateful that I have never had to endure sleeping outside in the courtyard or in the bathroom like so many of the other prisoners... Only someone who has experienced prison life understands how torturous it is to be deprived of fresh air and an area to walk a few steps to stretch your legs... I feel as though my life is slowly drifting from one where I live like a human to one where I am treated like an animal. The instinct of self-preservation and the desire to survive have become my main drive and concern. It feels as though there is nothing else to worry about except to stay alive."
I've learned through my activism in the past few years that Zia is a peaceful and calm person who is against violence and breaking the law. I approached one of Zia's friends to understand why regime authorities have acted harsher toward Zia than most other students. He said, "Zia's interrogator wanted him to confess that the MEK influenced him and the other students to pursue the right to education. Regime officials needed an excuse to prove that their issue with these students wasn't their advocacy for education rights, but rather their connection to anti-regime groups. But, because Zia had refused to cooperate with the lies, the interrogator was unable to find proof to support the false accusations. Consequently the interrogator held a grudge against Zia and acted spitefully."
I was only half convinced. Many Iranian activists refused to cooperate with their interrogators, and Zia wasn't the first one to be accused of having ties to the MEK. His friend responded, "Logic and the Islamic Republic clash. It's not easy to explain why authorities would hold more of a grudge against Zia than another activist who also pursued the right to education. Sometimes it just depends on the interrogator who gets assigned to you. Some of them are worse than others. But, nothing is certain when assessing an unlawful system." I suddenly recalled an excerpt from another letter Zia wrote from prison:
"Contrary to the explicit text of the country's criminal code, and without any evidence or proof, I was convicted of a charge so incompatible with my nature, essence, and personality that I became able to grasp the meaning of the phrase 'A bad or oppressive law is better than no law.' With an oppressive law, what constitutes the illegal act is clear and the consequential punishments are known. However, with lawlessness, you think you are supposed to attend university and continue your studies, but then you end up serving a prison sentence in exile."
Despite the confusion as to why Zia was targeted, there is one point that's clear to me. Zia and many other representatives of the youth generation were born after the 1979 revolution. During the Iran-Iraq war they were elementary school children. They grew up in the Islamic Republic and functioned within its system, but at the same time they grew up knowing about the opposition, like the MEK. They lived with these conflicting viewpoints, yet activists like Zia weren't pursuing the overthrow of the system. They were interested in peaceful activism and gradual change. Their main goal was to obtain human rights for Iran's civil society, and their desire for democracy and modernity drove them.
The saddest part of this story is that if people like Zia were given the opportunity they could have helped build a healthier and more prosperous future for Iran and its people. Instead, Iran's future is locked up behind bars, the economy is crippling more each day, and the regime spends its money and resources desperately holding onto power.
Let the imprisonment of people like Zia be a strong indication that the ideals of peace and democracy are a threat to the regime's existence.
We can't do much to convince the Iranian authorities to release Zia, but we can talk about him and spread the word about his plight. We could also morally support him. You could take a moment and send a birthday tweet to Zia using the hashtag #ZiaBDAY. Greetings will be collected and compiled in a birthday card to be sent to his family. You could also create a birthday card and post it on a Facebook page advocating for Zia's release from prison. Let's show him he's not alone.