An Inner View to the Human Rights Activists in Iran
Peace Line Monthly / Keyvan Rafiee – February 2016 marks the 10th anniversary of the establishment and activism of the “Human Right Activists in Iran, HRAI”; an organization that has been subjected to great vicissitudes and has endured enormous amount of pressures, and yet it has been able to leave a constructive and positive impact behind. Certainly this organization has also had its share of weaknesses and mistakes that call for criticism. As the founder and director of HRAI during the past decade, by avoiding repetitions, I will share my own experiences and will try to discuss the less mentioned aspects of the history of this organization in order to create more transparency.
Let us start at the very beginning, 10 years ago, after the repetitive experience of imprisonment and civil rights activism, the circle of like-minded friends and I, formed a “we”; a group of young people with idealistic demands seeking for change. In the time of frustration with political activism and increasing loss of hope in the ability to impact the surrounding world through partisan activism, we learnt about human rights and found it a field in which we could continue our activism in the hope of achieving our ideals, which is a society filed with humanitarian values.
Finally in February 2006, I put an end to months of challenges and doubts which perhaps were an opportunity to learn about human rights and its related concepts, and then with issuing a statement the “Human Right Activists in Iran, HRAI” was officially born.
In the fledgling civil society of past 23rd of May 1997*, at the time of unprecedented change in the world of communication in Iran and with having minimal and insignificant amount of freedom and security, we started our activities.
It is especially important to have in mind that in the beginning years of our activities, the speed and the influence of the internet in Iran was not anything in comparison to today. The internet as a main way of communication, within and outside of our group, was not a service available to all, and the extreme slow speed of uploading and downloading information (a few hundred kilo bites per second), seems comical today. In addition to the lack of technical means, the minimal influence of internet and the underdeveloped internet compared to today in Iran, the social media as a revolutionary element in today’s world of communication did not have a significant presence and overall was not mainly established; for instance Facebook as a primary social network of today, had only started working for two years and naturally did not have a considerable place in Iran of the time. In such circumstances at least during the first weeks, our communication and information (considering our knowledge and resources) was limited to emails; later this was replaced with a free weblog. It took at least two years before our website (in the modern sense) was launched, even then without having any access to Content Management Systems (CMS) such as Joomla and WordPress, in order to keep the website manually up-to-date, the posts had to be changed to HTML format using a special software, and subsequently uploaded directly into the server using FTP. I remember the days when we had to keep an old computer in use for a whole night just to update the website with a few simple news. We had to start uploading the news at night so that in the morning the website would be updated; if in the middle of the upload there was a power fluctuation or the internet was disconnected, what we had to do! Start over and repeat all these painful hours.
In addition to these communicational circumstances, during the early years of our activities the cellular network in the country was limited to “Hamrah-e Aval**” and was not widely used. Recalling these brief descriptions, I believe the past 10 years of technological development in the field of communication has been equal to 100 years of steps forward.
At the beginning of our activism, we were inexperienced; trial and error has always been a part of the process of our growth. While political activists could reduce their errors by studying and learning from the experiences of the former parties and revolutions, for us there was no such a possibility, considering that the cohesive human rights activism in Iran was very young and limited, and even if there were former experiences, they were not available to us, as we were a novice group of young activists; thus we could only rely on our own analyzing abilities. As the director of the team I referred to the books written during the 70s and the 80s, in order to educate myself on collective work and learn more about creating, keeping and developing a structure; the result was establishment of a complex structure for a civil rights organization. This was followed with various advantages and disadvantages that on one hand promoted the growth and development of the group, especially during the high security conditions, and in the other hand it had limited our communications and had made it difficult for our audience to see the essence of our activism, the Human Rights. Creating a vertical structure for a civil rights organization that would traditionally follow horizontal management structures, was indeed an innovation that impeded our growth, yet guaranteed the continuation of our activism.
The early years of our activism, were the years of earning experiences, creating a structure and developing the doctrine of the team work with a touch of idealism for our burgeoning organization. We realized that without planning, discipline and creating a coherent structure, there was no hope for our survival. By studying and by gaining experience certain principles were developed, positive attributes that the lack of any of them would have meant the end of our activism.
The following are briefly our most prominent organizational and personal attributes:
Youth-led: Our team’s age average was low, probably the main reason being that the initial members consisted of young people with enthusiastic demands. This was an opportunity to benefit from strong executive members and creative minds. The young members acted more daringly and idealistically, and took on more risks; however not having experienced members by our side increased our error percentage.
Having a Social base inside the country: It was very important to be able to establish an organization based inside Iran without connection to any party or taking any political side, to be able to continue our activism without raising the attention of the security sector of the country. By being within the country we were able to increase the sense of security within people to cooperate with us and so the ability to recruit, and therefore we were able to be present at happenings and events and to have a more realistic analysis of the ongoing affairs of the time.
The principle of equality and indiscrimination: Thought and organizational independence from any movement and any political, religious, governmental parties made indiscrimination of all people (which is extracted from our understanding of the essence of human rights) a permanent fundamental and unchangeable principle, and a dominant belief within the group. As people who started their activism outside the Capital (Tehran), we had an inner desire to be the voice of the voiceless and to highlight their demands and issues.
Courage: The lack of fear of experiencing and the belief in innovation, gave us courage so that instead of repeating others, we believed in ourselves; the type of organization’s management, field of study and the kind of activities were all the results of our own thinking, therefore we were not frightened by being challenged in any field against the accepted circumstances.
Innovation and creativity: We had a creative, curious, and idealistic mind that enjoyed and took activism seriously. We believe a group that is not creative and progressive is doomed to fail. Thus we have shown our ultimate creativity, from innovating new reporting methods, which were considered as an undeniable transformation in the field of human rights in Iran during the recent years, to acquiring new skills with the efficient use of technology.
Independency: Independency for a civic or even political organization, is equal to its freedom. Certainly, this has its own advantages and disadvantages; it is a disadvantage in the sense that without any empirical support and resources it would be left alone, yet it is an advantage if the goal is a long term activism, this independency would allow risk taking, innovation and flexibility. In general in terms of your goal, your interest will not be any different from your organization’s interest, and this means: Ensured continuity on the right path.
Being aware of our lack of awareness: Being aware of our lack of experience and lack of practical and theoretical knowledge was of the most important positive feature within our organization. By completely accepting our lack of knowledge, not only we did not resist against learning, but rather we sought knowledge, experience and awareness. We welcomed criticism and tried to keep our knowledge up to date. Whether in prison or free, we spent our leisure time preparing educational material for the fellows and ourselves.
Diligently and tirelessly: The fulltime members have been and still are mentally and physically active for 20 hours a day at times. We have experienced imprisonment and tolerated the lack of basic amenities; we knew that we were unexperienced and every failure for us was an opportunity to learn. We capitalized on our hope and aspiration in order to be diligent and tireless, or simply we were pertinacious at work. We have been through the most difficult times and circumstances with this pertinacity and the desire to survive and to continue on our path.
The experience of being a victim to human right violations: As the founder of the organization, I had personally experienced prison and been an activist, and that is how I came across the rest of the companions of the group. Hence the core members of the organization have the history of being a victim to human rights violations, specifically imprisonment for peaceful activism. This placed us in a position to be able to maintain a qualitative communication with the activists and communities that were prone to more human rights violations. Furthermore we truly understood the process and cost of activism and with a better understanding of the potential costs, we accepted the risks, and we had been trusted easier.
Selflessness: Sacrifices and forgetting ones individual interests for the common interest of the others has always been of our most important doctrines. Staying anonymous and being active without any personal interests in mind, has always been considered a key value in our mind. With the understanding of the importance and necessity of selfless activism and daily sacrifices, we have always tried to strengthen and arise this spirit in our collective activism.
The higher the rank, the higher the pressure: As part of the principle of organized activism we believed that anyone with higher authority should have had more responsibilities and show more effort, so that the ones under their management would be convinced to take on more responsibilities and to put in more efforts. Accordingly, the higher ranks in the organization, including myself, have always tried to be under the most pressure and to put in the most effort, for instance I would have requested my colleagues to work long hours in a day, only if on the very same day I had worked longer hours than my request. This is the manner that all levels of the organization work in and define their relations with the members under their management. We tolerated the lack of sleep and exhaustion as well as hardships and imprisonment, yet even when we were forced to flee our country, we refused to stop our activism at the cost of our families’ security and we have paid the price of this tenacity. To us, the authority is with the one who shows greater effort and endures deeper wounds; a great ship asks deeper water.
Organization: From the very beginning by the studying, we highly believed that the secret to our permanence in human rights activism would be in a team work; the kind of team work that in the security atmosphere of Iran is better to be regarded as “organized activism”. A Coherent, unified and flexible organized activism that could as one body guarantee the existence of an organization. We truly believed in this idea, and with all seriousness we tried to build a single body of discipline and organization.
In the security socio-political circumstances of the time, “Human Right Activist in Iran, HRAI” by relaying on the mentioned principles began its activism, and has been through 10 years of vicissitudes. I believe it is the time that some of these peaks and important events of HRAI’s activism, even though briefly, be shared and examined:
Farzad Kamangar, a Shooting Star
Farzad Kamangar had officially joined our organization before his arrest, there is an audio file available on the internet as the proof. He was a member of HRAI for months, however we did not ever claim his arrest is related to us or that he had ever significantly collaborated with us, yet our acquaintance before his arrest created a strong trust between us which remained strong till the very end. I was personally Farzad’s ward-mate and our connection and acquaintance led to his writings of “Letters from the Prison”, and putting them at my disposal. In fact the campaign to save Farzad Kamangar, which could even be considered as a movement, publicly began with the publication of his “Letters from Prison” and his “Narrations of Torture”. Alongside Farzad, his family and his lawyer, HRAI was one of the pillars to this roof, and played a key role in media publications and other affairs of his campaign.
I do not intend to elaborate on Farzad Kamangar’s story here, the purpose of this brief is to acknowledge the fact that our continuous communication with Farzad and working with the campaign, became a golden opportunity for our exponential growth and embedding the principle of equality and indiscrimination in the body of our team. This provided us with the experience of working with marginal parts of the country and oppressed regions like Kurdistan; the experiences learnt from activism in this region became a key in engaging and involvement in similar regions. Along with our activism in other regions, fields and sectors, with Farzad Kamangar’s Campaign we became recognized, thus we established more connections that helped us to earn more trust and to be subjected to more tests.
The opportunity of vast activism in Kurdish regions was given to us when the head and the body of the “Kurdistan Human Right Organization” managed by Mohammad Sadiq Kaboudvand, was dastardly and unfairly damaged by the security sectors of the country, and its leader had been imprisoned. In such circumstances as one of the very few none-Kurdish groups in the region, with attracting the trust of Kurdish people we were able to expand our activism into the farthest Kurdish villages and later use this experience to expand in other parts of the country.
Committee of the Right to Education
Thanks to our insistence on the principle of equality and indiscrimination (as mentioned before), we were able to find our way into the minority communities of Iran. The Bahai’s community despite its small population, was a prime focus in the field of human rights in Iran. This community’s young and educated generation is a precious capital for lighting the path of improving human rights in Iran. By proving our faith in equality and honesty we were able to gain the trust of the youth of this community and make HRAI a field for collaborative activism. The tireless and motivated young Bahai community, who were facing educational discrimination and deprivation in Iran, found their presence in our Committee of Right to Education a way to demand their fundamental right to education.
The presence of these friends in the organization was an opportunity to earn more experience in broader activism and develop farther. However eventually because of the difference of opinions in management and also because of the March 2, 2010 attacks on HRAI, we could not continue our coherent collaboration; nevertheless it does not take away from the value of the constructive influence and the positive history of collaborating with them.
I have previously published an article concerning Seyed Jamal Hosseini (Esfandiar Baharmas), and his records and status (1); however the current article would be incomplete without any mention of him. Certainly when the 10 years history of our activism is being considered, he is missed by our side more than anyone else.
Jamal Hosseini has played a valuable and outstanding role in the activities of the group; yet before his death not many activists knew about him, therefore we insist on introducing him broadly and accurately. Surely the history of HRAI has not only been made by Jamal alone, but rather there have been many more Jamals who anonymously and diligently made this activism possible. Seyed Jamal Hosseini’s tragic death in Turkey led to further introduction of this valuable example and a role model in our activism.
Jamal was a real friend, a virtues brother and a precious colleague who played an important role in the executive process of our work from the very beginning up to his death (August 5, 2014). Although the mechanisms, activities and policies of HRANA (which he was the editor of) has been specified by the organization and not by a particular person, yet it is hard to imagine to stand where we are today without Jamal’s around the clock endeavor and contributions.
March 2, 2010
March 2, 2010 marks the beginning of the fundamental changes in HRAI, this day marks the start of the vast effort of security sector of the Iranian Regime to halt our organization. Although even before March 2nd we had many members arrested and sentenced; yet the major difference of this date is the planned and extensive attacks with the clear purpose of immediately halting our activism. From March 2nd to nearly the end of March, approximately 46 people who were members, colleague or had any connections to HRAI were arrested and detained at security prisons. The security sector took on a different approach for a few of us including myself (who was not arrested due to leaving the country), their approach was arresting and keeping the family members as a hostage, therefore the family members also spent times in detention. Eventually, in one year this arrests led to the issuance of at least 60 years of suspension and imprisonment, many open cases and some having to leave the country. (2)
March 2nd is the day that we realized it was impossible to be publicly or semi-publicly active like before, and we were forced to accept that we had to continue our activism in scrutiny and dangerous circumstances. This incident created major changes in the structure and practices of our activism.
Accusation of Political Tendency
During these years, the difficulties that were exerted on the organization by the critics and oppositions of the Iranian Regime, if not considered more than the pressure that the Iranian Regime exerted on us, was not much less either; the reason is clear: the lack of a proper communicational culture, instrumental use of Human Rights, and the lack of belief in the independent existence of a civil institution.
As an old strategy when the Security Sector of the Country wanted to alienate and distance our activism from its key centers, they started accusing and spreading rumors about us. For instance they would summon our Baloch members and tell them that our organization is collaborating with Jundallah or they told our Kurdish members that we were collaborating with PJAK (Party of Free Life of Kurdistan), to the nationalist members we were introduced as a secessionist group and so on. Thus the volunteers even with knowledge of the falsity of such claims, ultimately would had taken this warnings seriously and either stopped their collaboration with HRAI, or at least tried to keep it hidden.
The procedure of the Security Sector derived from the protests after the controversial tenth presidential elections of Iran, was revealed in March 2010, in one hand by the arrests and destruction of our facilities and in the other hand by the soft war and propaganda against us; by the decision of the security sector, outlandish claims that did not make any sense were aired multiple times from the most popular medias, known as the national media. One day we were connected to The “People’s Mujahedin of Iran” and the next day we were connected to the exact opposite, The Royal Assembly and the monarchists, another day it would be our connection to the West or intelligence agencies and the day after they would talk about us being connected to the Tudeh party, Baluch dissidents etc. The propaganda films that were made with these false contents about us, had different content and motives in Farsi for the Iranian audience and in English or Arabic for the foreign speaking audiences.
Yet we did not have much concerns, because we imagined this vulgar charade would not be taken seriously by anyone, especially that the Security Sector had an atrocious history of these propagandas; however it is not deniable that our neglect to deal with these propaganda according to the famous saying “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it” led to the dead atmosphere that surrounded us for a very long time, an atmosphere that we merely were able to neutralize with years of hardships and insistence on principled activism.
As I have mentioned earlier, the sources of these pressures have not and are not only the Security Sector of the Country, but there has been contrasting yet complimentary sources.
To mention one example from many other examples; when as a leading and creative group, we created the prison network and perhaps for the very first time we published the voice of a death row political prisoner (Valiullah Faiz Mahdavi – Spring of 2006), long before the Security Sector of the Country started attacking us, it was the groups and people who claimed to be the opposition of the Iranian Regime who started propagandizing and spreading rumors, saying we were connected to the Security Sector of the Country. Explanation is simple: Parties and groups aboard had been frozen in the 70s and 80s forms of activism and could not simply believe in the raising of a new generation and the increasing maturity of the civil society within the country. They even could not simply understand the fact that it is possible for the political prisoners to contact the outside world of prison; this lack of understanding, sounds comical now that prisoners can even update their social media from the prison. Even though the time has worked in our favor to prove us honest and rightful, yet we are still subjected to this kind of pressures.
During, before and after 2009 we have been placed in situations where the Security Sector of the Country directly or indirectly with putting us under pressure, has asked us to take a stance against the opposition political parties and groups, for instance we have been asked directly to take a stance in the conflict between Hezbollah and Israel, to take a stance against the Mujahedin, or take the Revolutionary Guards side in the conflict between them and PJAK and so on. Although we do not have any theoretical or organizational affiliations with these groups, yet we believed if we capitulate in to this demands which fundamentally were in contrast with out charter, objectives and framework, not only we have acted far from the dignity and principles of an organization, but in the long term we will be more vulnerable to pressure and bully of the Security Sector. Accordingly we never accepted such a demand, which was mostly delivered to us by our imprisoned fellows, and indeed we have paid the price of insisting on our principles, by being the target for the revenge of the thirsty Security Sector of the Country. This brief’s focus is not on describing the 10 years sufferings exerted on us by the groups for or against the Iranian Regime; as time has proven, the accusations by the Iranian Regime and some who consider themselves the oppositions of it (yet have inadvertently or deliberately repeated the accusations) are wrong and I will merely emphasize on the fact that our organization (HRAI) has no affiliations with any political, religious and governmental organization or group.
The turnover of HRAI from 2006 to 2011 at its highest has been only a few hundred dollars a month, which has been funded by the core members and from their personal funds; however after the incident of the 2nd of March because of the severe damage to the organization and its facilities, the loss of many experienced members, some members leaving Iran, and last but not least because of the importance of being active and exist outside of Iran while maintaining full independency; HRAI is using financial aids from the non-governmental organization of “National Endowment for Democracy, NED” based in USA.
Currently the annual turnover of the organization with all of its sub-divisions, is totaling less than the average earnings of a simple worker in USA, the most of these funds are spent on various services. This organization has never hired any paid staff and unfortunately the only financial support it has been able to show its fulltime staff, has been in the form of grants to a few members. These grants are just enough to cover basic needs and necessities of life so that colleagues would be able to dedicate more time to the organization with a clear mind.
HRANA News Agency
HRAI essentially started its activism with reporting on the Human Rights situation of Iran, and reporting has always been a main focus in the past decade. Before 2009 HRAI only published its report in its own website; yet realizing, the lack and distance of media and the human rights organizations, as well as our willingness and interest to expand other sections of the organization in order to further specialize our activism, eventually in the February of 2009, led us to the establishment of HRANA the first specialized human rights news agency in the country. This news agency was established mainly with the goal of creating a human rights reference news library, which in addition to preparing its own reports, also collected human rights news and reports published by other organizations and media. HRANA is still active in the same manner.
Due to repeated damage to the organization’s database, it is hardly possible to collect the exact stats of HRANA’s activities and reports, especially for the first 4 years of its activism; however from 2012 until the preparation of this article, HRANA has either exclusively or from other sources gathered, at least 24 thousand reports on the human rights in Iran.
During the years of activities, tens of administrative members and hundreds of volunteers have collaborated in various ranks with this news agency. From the day of establishment to August 2014 Seyed Jamal Hosseini was the editor of HRANA, and from March 2015 till this day Ali Ajami has taken on the role of Editor.
2006-2007: Getting started, trial and error, experimentation.
2007-2008: Focusing on structuring, recruiting and organizing members.
2008-2010: The peak of our organizational maturity, at this time more than 30 specialized committees were created and the number of registered members (not necessarily active) had reached over two thousand volunteers.
2010-2012: Attacks of 2009, Reconstruction of the group by defining new policies and strategies in accordance with the new situation.
2012-Today: Developing and strengthening the group by the strategy of “reduced quantity and increased quality”. Finally five specialized sectors of the organization were established.
Strategy, Sectors and Approaches
Currently, HRAI organizes its field members and its operational scope in 5 sectors and with 5 approaches (3). The full explanation of these sectors and approaches need another article; but for a better understanding a few of them are briefly mentioned:
HRANA News Agency: as previously explained, the news agency of HRAI, despite all the restrictions is still responsible for gathering and publishing at least nearly half of the reports on the human rights violations in Iran.
Peace Line monthly: as the specialized journal on human rights, its publication has been abruptly halted for 2 years after the incident of 2009; however from 2012 till this day it has been published without any interruptions monthly, as the theoretical front in human rights with focus on the atmosphere and activists inside of Iran. This monthly journal in addition to being published online, is also printed and distributed within Iran in small quantities.
The Fourth Column Committee: is a committee of the organization focused on fighting against censorship and internet filtering. This committee began distributing proxy and assistance in 2011 and from 2012 to 2014 has been distributing Free VPNs to Iranians, in August 2014 this committee stopped providing VPN due to financial issues; while during the last months of the service it provided secure and free internet surfing to approximately 2 to 3 million Iranians. Ever since this committee is focusing on education, information and research and hopefully will soon start providing new local services to deal with censorship.
The Center for Statistic and Records: From 2012 with creating a special software, The Center for Statistic and Records is archiving human rights violations in Iran daily. Thousands of reports are entered into the special software yearly, which makes giving statistic outputs and analysis possible for this sector. The data is available for Human Rights Watch. (4)
A decade after its establishment, The “Human Right Activists in Iran, HRAI” is still standing and continuing on its path, with enthusiasm, hope and a bag full of experiences. Today we are forced to find new ways to be active due to the security atmosphere in the country, therefore instead of collaborating with large numbers of volunteers and amateur members, we collaborate with fewer but more professional members.
Indeed we are eager to collaborate and cooperate with other experienced and professional organizations defending human rights in order to advance and grow, and of course we will try to maintain our activism’s focus on Iran.
On the path that we have undertaken and in the coming years, we hope to increase our ability to report on human rights situation in Iran, and to provide legal services to the victims of human rights violations, to strive for production and distribution of educational material, to strive for our main strategy which is “making violation of human rights costly for its violators” by the development of civil society within the country, and to benefit from the international community in the context of improving the Human Rights situation within Iran.
In conclusion as the person in charge and responsible for the most of the shortcomings of this organization during the past decade, I pay tribute to Farzad Kamangar, Jamal Hosseini and Tahir Elçi *** for their selfless efforts to support this organization, today more than ever they are missed beside us. I bow down to the many former and current fellows who anonymously, without any expectations and with fullest honesty and dedication have paid costly prices, yet they did not desert their ideals, doctrines and beliefs. I also appreciate all those dear and noble people who have stood by our side and have shined a light on our path, during the most difficult and darkest moments of our time.
*the seventh presidential election of Iran, where more than 80% of those eligible voted, which marked a new era in Iranian politics because of the unexpected win with nearly 70% of the votes going to the reformist president Mohammad Khatami.
** Mobile Telecommunication Company of Iran, commonly known as “Hamrah-e Aval”, is the first and largest mobile operator in Iran.
*** Tahir Elçi (1966 – November 28, 2015) was a Kurdish lawyer whom was killed in the Sur district of Diyarbakir in the southeastern region of Turkey on 28 November 2015. He was shot in the head, while giving a press statement calling to end violence.
1- Rafiee, K., (2015, August 9). A Short Description of Seyed Jamal Hosseini’s Life and Death, HRANA. Retrieved from https://hra-news.org/en/articles/short-description-seyed-jamal-hosseinis-life-death-keyvan-rafiee
2- HRANA Website. (2011, March 3). 60years of Imprisonment and Tens of Victims- One Year Summery of Security Sectors Scenario against HRAI. Retrieved from (in Farsi): https://hra-news.org/fa/uncategorized/1-6130
3- Human Right Activists in Iran. Charter of HRAI. Retrieved from http://www.hra-iran.org/en/exposure/charter
4- Human Right Activists in Iran. Retrieved from http://www.hra-iran.org/en/