Monday, May 31, 2010

Police stuff three suspects into car trunks

Video posted to the Internet on Monday, May 31, 2010, allegedly shows Islamic Republic police officers placing three suspects in the trunks of two police cars in Kermanshah, the capital of Kermanshah province, in western Iran. The majority of the population in that area is Kurdish.

The automobiles bear what appear to be official markings of Islamic Republic Security Forces police cars and official black registration plates. The smaller print on the car doors are illegible, but are situated in the usual spot where the jurisdiction and unit of Islamic Republic police forces are placed.

I invite readers who manage to read the writing on the car doors or who can ascertain the make of the automobiles to leave a comment.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Amnesty International releases annual report

Amnesty International released its annual report on the state of the world's human rights on Thursday, May 27, 2010. The document covers the period from January to December 2009.

In the introduction to the section addressing Iran, Amnesty states:

An intensified clampdown on political protest preceded and, particularly, followed the presidential election in June, whose outcome was widely disputed, deepening the long-standing patterns of repression. The security forces, notably the paramilitary Basij, used excessive force against demonstrators; dozens of people were killed or fatally injured. The authorities suppressed freedom of expression to an unprecedented level, blocking mobile and terrestrial phone networks and internet communications. Well over 5,000 people had been detained by the end of the year. Many were tortured, including some who were alleged to have been raped in detention, or otherwise ill-treated. Some died from their injuries. Dozens were then prosecuted in grossly unfair mass “show trials”. Most were sentenced to prison terms but at least six were sentenced to death. The election-related violations occurred against a background of severe repression, which persisted throughout 2009 and whose victims included members of ethnic and religious minorities, students, human rights defenders and advocates of political reform. Women continued to face severe discrimination under the law and in practice, and women’s rights campaigners were harassed, arrested and imprisoned. Torture and other ill-treatment of detainees remained rife and at least 12 people died in custody. Detainees were systematically denied access to lawyers, medical care and their families, and many faced unfair trials. Iran remained one of the states with the highest rates of execution and one of very few still to execute juvenile offenders: at least 388 people were executed, including one by stoning and at least five juveniles.

The report provides an overview of human rights violations in the Islamic Republic over the 12-month period which ended in December 2009 and includes the following highlights:

Unlawful killings
The authorities said 43 died in the protests but opposition sources said the true total was likely to be over 100.

Arrests and detentions
Well over 5,000 people were detained after the election by the end of the year, including opposition politicians, journalists, academics, students, lawyers, human rights activists and army officers.

Rape and other torture
Compelling evidence emerged that a number of detainees, both women and men, had been raped and otherwise tortured in detention, but instead of investigating allegations thoroughly, the authorities were quick to deny them and then harassed the victims and closed the offices of a committee collecting victims’ testimonies.

Unfair trials
Mass “show trials” involving scores of detainees were staged in successive sessions beginning in August. [...] More than 80 were convicted and sentenced to prison terms of up to 15 years; at least six others were sentenced to death.

Human rights defenders
Human rights defenders, including minority and women’s rights activists, lawyers and trade unionists, continued to face arbitrary arrest, harassment, prosecution and unfair trials throughout the year.

Discrimination against women
Women’s rights campaigners, including those active in the “One Million Signatures” campaign to end legal discrimination, were harassed, detained, prosecuted and banned from travelling for collecting signatures in support of their petition.

Freedom of expression and association
The authorities blocked websites voicing criticism, notably those of Iranian bloggers, and periodically blocked those of foreign news media reporting on Iran. [...] They also shut down or maintained bans on tens of journals, magazines and other print media, targeted critical journalists and infiltrated and undermined independent civil society groups.

Discrimination against ethnic and religious minorities
Members of Iran’s ethnic minorities continued to face discrimination along with harassment and imprisonment for advocating greater respect for social and cultural rights. [...] Among those targeted were Sunni Muslim clerics; Shi’a clerics advocating the separation of the state from religion; members of the Dervish and Ahl-e Haqq communities; members of a philosophical association called Al-e Yasin; Christians; and members of the Baha’i community, who remained unable to access higher education.

Torture and other ill-treatment
Methods reported included severe beatings; confinement in tiny spaces; deprivation of light, food and water; and systematic denial of medical treatment. At least 12 people were believed to have died in custody in 2009 apparently as a result of ill-treatment or lack of adequate medical care.

Death penalty
The rate of reported executions rose sharply during the unrest between the presidential election on 12 June and the inauguration on 5 August – 112 executions were recorded, an average of more than two a day.

To view and download the report in PDF format, please click on the links below:
A-Z Country Entries
The full report

The following video was released as an accompaniment to the 2010 Amnesty International report:

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Tabriz soccer victory triggers protests

Jubilation following the victory of a local soccer team led to demonstrations for minority rights in Tabriz, East Azerbaijan province, on Tuesday, May 25, 2010.

The game between Tabriz City Hall (Shahrdari Tabriz) and Kaveh, a team from Tehran, ended with a goal by the home team in the final seconds of overtime, clinching a 2-1 victory and all but guaranteeing the ascension of Shahrdari from the second division to the premier league next season. Some of the over 20,000 cheering spectators at Takhti stadium, also known as Baghshomal, rushed onto the field after the game ended.

View Tabriz - Takhti (Baghshomal) Stadium - 25 May 2010 in a larger map

The celebrations seeped into the streets surrounding the stadium, northwest of Tabriz University, and the cries of joy soon gave way to chants demanding, among other things, the right to teach the Azeri language in local schools.

The following footage shows the street protest. Plainclothesmen can be seen arresting at least one protester at the tail end of the cortege (2:12 mark).

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Photos show Panahi gaunt, yet determined, just after his release

Celebrated filmmaker Jafar Panahi posed for several photos in his Tehran home just after being released on bail from Evin Prison on Tuesday, May 25, 2010. The images show a gaunt, yet determined, Panahi. He had started a hunger strike last weekend to protest threats made against his family -- particularly to imprison his daughter and subject her to inhumane treatment in jail -- and to gain access to his family and lawyer.

Panahi had been arrested on March 1 on charges which have yet to be explained by the Islamic regime. He awaits trial at the Tehran Revolutionary Court.

Bail was set at 200 million toumans (about $200,000). The sum, significant in the West, is back-breakingly steep in the Islamic Republic. The regime uses such large bail amounts as a weapon to keep dissidents in check, even after they have been temporarily released from prison.

Panahi is said to have been preparing a film based on the post-election unrest when he was arrested. In September 2009, he was the president of the jury at the 33rd Montreal Film Festival and used the occasion to voice his support for the democracy movement in Iran. He was subsequently banned from traveling abroad.

The following footage shows Panahi at the Montreal festival, where he explained he was wearing a green scarf for 'the kids in Iran. For freedom. For the kids who are in prison. They don't allow us to make films now, but hundreds of thousands of kids with cameras have become filmmakers.'

In an unscripted and moving moment on the red carpet, Panahi called over a number of Iranian protesters and embraced them. 'Long live the children of Iran,' he said as he applauded the green-clad group.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Shouts of protest greet Ahmadinejad in Khorramshahr

Despite efforts to carefully orchestrate Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's official visits to avoid embarrassing situations and paint him as a popular national leader, live footage of the president's speech in Khorramshahr, Khuzestan province, was overwhelmed by the crowd's incessant shouts of 'unemployment, unemployment' on Monday, May 24, 2010.

View Khorramshahr - crowd shouts 'bikari, bikari' (unemployment, unemployment) during Ahmadinejad speech - 24 May 2010 in a larger map

Ahmadinejad was in Khorramshahr to celebrate the liberation of the city on May 24, 1982, considered a turning point in the Iran-Iraq War. The inauguration of a water pipeline was also announced with much pomp. But the restless crowd of people who greeted Ahmadinejad had little interest in celebrating Operation Beit ol-Moghaddas which took back the port city from Iraqi forces, a seminal event in the history of the Islamic Republic, or to revel in a waterworks project.

Ahmadinejad attempted to shout over the cries of the population, but even his promises to stem unemployment in the southwestern province failed to trigger applause or to calm the people's loud refrain of 'bikari, bikari!' (unemployment, unemployment!) 'The government is at your service,' said the beleaguered Ahmadinejad. 'With broad projects, with the efforts of the dear youth of Khorramshahr and Khuzestan province, it will uproot unemployment from Khuzestan, god willing.'

Friday, May 14, 2010

A tale of two dungeons

The Cannes festival kicked off Wednesday and unlike the Oscars where the organizers frown upon anything to do with activism, this international gathering of film talent welcomes political controversy and strong opinions.

So it came as no surprise that French philosopher and celebrity intellectual figure Bernard-Henri Lévy decided to use the festival opening as a springboard for a petition denouncing the 'denial of the legal rights' of a filmmaker who has been kept in 'Kafkaesque isolation' and 'forbidden to see his comrades, his colleagues and, sometimes, his friends.'

Lévy managed to make a splash by getting a dozen directors whose films have been selected to compete at this year's Cannes festival -- including Swiss filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard, Olivier Assayas... -- to sign a petition in support of the long-suffering director.

I refer of course to... Roman Polanski.

What!? Not Jafar Panahi?

Shortly after the Islamic regime arrested world-renowned director Jafar Panahi in early March because he was preparing to make a movie about the post-election unrest, Cannes festival president Gilles Jacob announced that he would invite Panahi to the festival as a special guest. Then on April 15, after unveiling his film selection, Jacob declared that Panahi had been chosen as a member of the festival jury presided by Tim Burton.

On Tuesday, festival director Thierry Frémaux had piqued the attention of the media by saying that a special gesture would be made to Panahi during the opening ceremony the next day. It was also announced that a short film showing the Iranian filmmaker describing a previous arrest and interrogation would be screened on Thursday afternoon, during the official opening of the 'Un Certain Regard' section of the festival. By then Panahi would have been in prison for over 70 days.

It was the eve of the festival's opening day and everything was in place to focus media attention on the plight of one Iranian filmmaker who would represent all the victims of human rights violations in the Islamic Republic.

And that's when Bernard-Henri Lévy decided to bring his petition on behalf of Polanski to the attention of the world. His act was all the more perplexing because he has been a friend of the democracy movement in Iran and has participated in protest marches against the Islamic Republic.

Roman Polanski has been under house arrest in his chalet in the skiing resort of Gstaad, awaiting the Swiss judiciary's decision on an American extradition request. This is the Kafkaesque isolation to which Lévy refers.

Polanski fled the US in 1978 just before being sentenced in a case involving sexual assault on a 13-year-old girl. His defenders proclaim that Polanski has been unfairly singled out and that he should not be extradited because, among various reasons, a statute of limitations should apply, the victim no longer wants Polanski to be prosecuted, and the filmmaker has already served his sentence because he spent 42 days confined to Chino state prison for psychiatric evaluation.

I do not want to argue whether the case put forward by Polanski's advocates has any merit. I am not a lawyer and I do not know the details of the case.

But I do know that Lévy is an adroit manipulator of the media, in a good way I should add, since he has often highlighted legitimate human rights abuses around the globe. He knew exactly what he was doing with his latest effort. His goal was to have people mention Panahi and Polanski as victims in the same breath.

Tim Burton and the festival organizers' decision to include an empty chair bearing Panahi's name on the stage next to the other jury members at the opening ceremony was a fantastic coup which has been reported around the world:

However, it was also noteworthy that a journalist at the jury's press conference asked Burton about his thoughts on Panahi AND Polanski. 'All of us are for freedom of expression. We fight for that every day and in our lives,' responded the jury president, as vaguely as he could.

This didn't sit well with Lévy, who griped to a radio station Friday morning, 'When you're the president [sic] of the Cannes festival, when you have the opportunity to tell a comrade, whom you know very well is not a pedophile, when you have the opportunity to express your support to him and you just say, "I'm for freedom of expression," it's pathetic.' Lévy went on to describe Burton as an 'immense filmmaker and a mediocre individual.'

Maybe Burton wasn't playing along, but others were. In a piece published by Le Monde and entitled 'Free Panahi and Polanski,' columnist Franck Nouchi wrote, 'In Iran and the United States, for reasons which are certainly different, cinema is gagged in this manner.' Nouchi then went on to stretch his intellectual gymnastic act to breaking point by stating, 'If the liberation of Panahi and Polanski is blocked to this extent today, it is because they are victims of who they are: huge artists.'

However much the facts are stretched, there is no equivalence between the case of a filmmaker who may or may not have committed statutory rape over 30 years ago and the case of a prisoner of conscience who has undeniably been arrested because of his opposition to the Islamic regime and his desire to exercise freedom of expression.

And however much Polanski's friends and defenders decry his situation, his solitude and pain in a chalet in the Swiss Alps cannot be compared to that of Panahi, for years prevented by the Islamic Republic from making a new film and now held in a true prison.

This is not a tale of two dungeons.

Bernard-Henri Lévy should have known better.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

General strike in Kurdistan province

Footage and photos posted to the Internet appear to indicate that a general stike called in Kurdistan procince today, May 13, 2010, to protest the execution of five political prisoners, Farzad Kamangar, Shirin Alam Hooli, Ali Heidari, Mehdi Eslamian, and Farhad Vakili on Sunday -- four of them Iranian Kurds -- has been successful.

Purportedly Sanandaj

Cars purportedly honking to celebrate success of general strike.

Purportedly Mahabad

Endless line of cars waiting for gas

A video purporting to show an endless line of cars queuing for compressed natural gas in Tehran was posted on YouTube yesterday, but was allegedly filmed on May 9, 2010, around midnight.

In an effort to reduce gasoline consumption, the Islamic Republic has encouraged the production and sale of natural gas vehicles and bi-fuel vehicles which run on compressed natural gas (CNG). Consumers have bought such cars in order to overcome gasoline rationing and a significant hike in gasoline prices which is expected once the new subsidy law is implemented. It is also feared that new sanctions will severely restrict gasoline imports. Although Iran has some of the world's largest petroleum reserves, it depends on gasoline imports because of its failing refinery capacity. According to Deputy Oil Minister Azizollah Ramezani, there are about 1.5 million bi-fuel vehicles on the country's roads today.

Unfortunately for the owners of such vehicles, the Islamic Republic has not built enough CNG stations to service the automobiles. Only 900 such stations are currently operating in the country, according to Ramezani, who may be suspected of padding the figures. In an unusual show of candor, Fars News published a report, reprinted by the Iranian energy conservation association, in September 2009 about the long lines of cars outside CNG stations around the country. (As Fars News is close to the Revolutionary Guards, this report may have been part of a campaign by the IRGC to gain the national contract for building a chain of outlets. The Khatam ol-Anbia Reconstruction Base, the IRGC's main engineering company, and perhaps the largest such group in the country, is already involved in several massive oil and gas projects, including the South Pars Gas Fields.)

'Most owners of bi-fuel vehicles, which entered the market following the decision of the 9th government (NB Ahmadinejad's previous administration) to optimize and reduce energy consumption, continue to express dissatisfaction, mainly because they must waste a great deal of time in long lines in front of CNG stations,' wrote Fars News. The news agency's intrepid reporter wrote, 'Around 11 AM, we arrive at the CNG station in Kordestan Freeway and the first thing that attracts our attention is a long line of cars stretching for 500 to 600 meters.' Reza Somboli, the CNG station's manager, told Fars news that such numbers of vehicles can be witnessed around the clock and that it is only between 1AM and 5AM that the line grows a bit shorter. This particular station has 4 pumps with 8 nozzles, but only 4 nozzles are actually working. A motorist must wait 90 minutes on average to get from the end of the line to a gas pump, Somboli said.

The Fars News reporter witnessed the same problem at the Shahid Hakim CNG station (3 pumps) a bit farther away. The footage posted on YouTube purportedly shows the Shahid Hakim CNG station:

View Tehran - Hakim Compressed Natural Gas station, Hakim Freeway - 9 May 2010 in a larger map

A translation of the cameraman's comments follows the video:

Hello, hello. So today was May 9, 2010. We were driving by, around midnight, and we saw a very interesting thing and we thought you should see it too. This car which you see parked sideways in a traffic circle is waiting in a nice line. Now this is where the queue starts.

What could this line be for?


Please drive a bit faster, because at this rate we won't make it home.

What a nice line. I'm Parsa Kamranian and am one of your dear countrymen visiting from Dubai. I saw this scene and it was really fascinating for me.


What a line. Unbelievable.

Maybe Julia Roberts is at the end.


Let me give a hint to our smart fellow citizens. We're near Kordestan [Freeway in Tehran]. Stop, stop the car. (They stop next to a motorist) Sir, what are you queuing for?

This line is for gas, my dear.

Gas! So that's what it is.


(Another motorist confirms the line is for gas.)

And here we are. The Shahid Hakim CNG station.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Inflation down... but so are prospects

I was perusing the International Monetary Fund's World Economic Outlook, released in April 2010, when a statistic jumped out at me. The rate of inflation in the Islamic Republic had fallen to 10.3% in 2009, from 25.4% the previous year.

What was going on? Had the Ahmadinejad administration shown more economic know-how than has been generally recognized? Most economists have faulted the government for runaway expenditure, low currency reserves, a moribund manufacturing base, a skewed balance of trade (especially if oil exports are taken out of the equation), rising unemployment...

I sought the opinion of two Iranian economists who wish to remain anonymous. They had, of course, already seen the figures and were not particularly surprised.

Falling inflation in a booming environment is a sign of good stewardship, but it can also be the by-product of an economic slowdown. In other words, less activity translates into less purchasing power which puts pressure on the prices of goods. In the case of the Islamic Republic, the rate of inflation is also subject to the massive import of cheap goods (a policy of the Ahmadinejad government, by the way), especially from China. While the price of meat may have risen drastically to 12,000 to 13,000 toumans a kilo, milk to 350 toumans a liter, potatoes to 1,000 toumans a kilo (and the list goes on), the basket of goods and services which is used to calculate the rate of inflation also includes cheaper shoes, cheaper cars, cheaper textiles, cheaper television sets, and so on, from China. This may push down the rate of inflation, but it also has a devastating effect on the manufacturing sector, which will lead to a greater economic downturn in the future. The appearance of imported fruit and vegetables in Iranian markets also paints a gloomy forecast for the country's agriculture.

Emerging countries in the region saw a similar fall in average inflation -- 13.5% to 6.6% -- in 2008 and 2009. However, the Islamic Republic's rate -- 25.4% down to 10.3% -- was still much higher than the average, while some countries even showed deflationary tendencies. The price of a basket of some 350 goods and services had actually fallen (a negative rate of inflation) by 2.8% in Iraq and 4.9% in Qatar over the same period.

A look at the growth of gross domestic product (GDP) in the Islamic Republic provides part of the explanation. In 2008, the economy grew an unimpressive 2.3%, which is still better than last year's disastrous 1.8%. In comparison, the average growth for the region's emerging countries during those two years was 5.1% and 2.4%. Iraq's growth rate was 9.5% and 4.2%, while Qatar's economy surged 15.8% and 9% in the same period. Kuwait had a 6.4% increase in GDP in 2008, but its economy actually contracted by -2.7% last year. However, no one is exactly weeping for Kuwait because it is one of the richest countries in the world when it comes to GDP per capita (estimated by the IMF at over $31,482  per Kuwaiti citizen last year. The Islamic Republic's GDP per capita is estimated to have been $4,460 last year).

Economic growth also has an effect on employment, or to be more precise unemployment in the case of the Islamic Republic. 800,000 new workers enter the country's labor force every year, which means that more than 800,000 jobs must be created annually to chip away at the unemployment rate. This rate is pretty much a mystery. The Islamic Republic has repeatedly advanced a figure of about 11%, whether economic growth has been high or low, which suggests some creative accounting. Most economists estimate the rate is closer to 25% of the labor force, and as high as 34% when it comes to young people. Reza Rahimi Nassab, Majlis representative and member of the legislature's social committee, recently said that the unemployment rate in Lorestan province had reached 40%.

The government's optimistic 4th economic plan called for the creation of 1.2 million jobs last year and it is highly unlikely that figure has been reached. The same plan was supposed to bring about an 8% rise in GDP (actual figure: 1.8%) and reduce unemployment to 8%. The Majlis is currently debating whether the 4th economic plan should continue to be implemented, or whether the country should embark on the 5th economic plan in the middle of this Iranian calendar year.

Economists believe that the Islamic Republic must maintain economic growth of 7% to 8% in order to stabilize the unemployment rate, and that its GDP must increase by 9% to 10% to begin to put a significant dent in the unemployment figures. Unfortunately for the legions of young people entering the market, the IMF predicts that the Islamic Republic's economy will grow by no more than 3% annually over the next three years.

As a futile exercise in going down memory lane, I took a look at GDP per capita in Iran and several other countries in 1978, at the time of the revolution, and 30 years later. I present the stark figures below (These are World Bank statistics, not adjusted for inflation, and converted to US dollars applying market exchange rates, which explains the difference with the IMF's numbers). Conclude what you will...

Iran          $1,997                 $4,027 (2007)
Malaysia   $1,238                 $8,209
Hungary   $1,552                 $15,408
Mexico      $1,595                 $10,231
Oman        $2,566                 $15,272 (2007)
France      $9,193                 $44,507
UK            $5,785                 $43,541
Saudi Arabia $9,373            $19,021
Spain         $4,239                $35,214