During Chicago’s portion of the Global Day of Action for Iran, on Saturday, July 25th, 2009, U.S. journalist and former Iranian prisoner Roxana Saberi delivered a moving speech about the realities of free speech in the U.S. vs. in Iran, and the ongoing struggle in Iran for basic, human rights. I have decided to transcribe this speech so that people may read her words along with the audio posted below. More to come from me tomorrow on Saturday’s event.—Jack
Thank you all so much. I met a few of you when I was waiting here for my time to talk, and I’ve been very, very touched—first of all, that all of you turned out here on this very important day, and that you’re speaking out for those Iranians whose voices can’t be heard as well, and also for those of you who supported me as some of you said. Thank you so much.
Imagine we are holding this event in Iran. First of all, it would be considered illegal, because the Interior Ministry refused to give us a permit for it. Let’s imagine, though, that we decided to hold this gathering anyway. Imagine we are calling for a certain number of our basic rights to be observed. We feel our votes in our Presidential election have not been properly counted, and we want our voices to be heard. We are not violent, we are not carrying weapons, and we are not threatening the public order. But mind you, if you are a journalist, or a weblogger, and if you write about this event, you could end up in jail. And if you take photos or video of this event, and go home and put them online, you can be accused of fomenting propaganda against your government.
So, (holds up pen), this is illegal, (holds up tape recorder), this is illegal, and this—what we’re doing here today—is illegal. But happens next is not illegal. While we are gathered here, some men in plain clothes have decided they’ve had enough of this rally. And they’re going to break it up. Not by nicely asking us to leave, but through violence, through tear gas, knives, batons, and maybe even guns. Many Iranians have been experiencing this violence and brutality first hand over the past several weeks. Here’s an account from one young Iranian after what was supposed to be a peaceful rally he attended in Tehran:
Today I am not feeling well. I inhaled so much tear gas that I can hardly breathe. And it burns. I’m completely bruised from getting beaten by batons. I’ve never seen anything so violent in my life. ‘Peaceful’ doesn’t mean anything here. Bullets were flying everywhere. I saw people getting killed. The plain clothed Basij—
He means the Iranian militia men, the vigilantes….
—were the ones who were shooting at the people.
Here is another account from a university student, describing a scene at the University of Tehran dormitories, two days after the country’s June 12th Presidential election:
Students were shouting slogans and demonstrating in the yard. Law enforces surrounded the place and broke the doors, and plain clothes Basij agents attacked the dorms. Inside the buildings, they sprayed tear gas and attacked the students with batons and knives. Some of the Basij also had guns and were shooting. At least three students died of their wounds that day.
So let’s get back to our demonstration. It has been violently broken up by plain clothes men. And some of us are taken to jail. You get to prison, or to some unidentifiable location. You are not allowed to call your family and tell them where you are, or where you think you might be. Maybe your family will figure out on your own where you are, or maybe they won’t figure out where you are. Your father or mother, your daughter or your son, might come to the prison gates asking if you’re there, and they’ll be told “There’s no one here by that name,” even though you’re sitting in a cell only a few yards away. Maybe you’re in solitary confinement, or maybe you share a crowded cell with many other detainees. You will undergo several hours, maybe even days of interrogation, most likely while you are blindfolded. Do you want a lawyer? Forget it. Not until your interrogation is complete. Your captors tell you “A lawyer can’t help you” anyway. Besides, some attorneys get thrown in jail just for representing people like you.
So when will you be free? you ask. Only after you “cooperate,” your interrogators say. But what does that mean? It may mean you have to sign a paper that is blank at the top and says at the bottom: “I agree with all the above statements.” It may also mean that you have to confess. But to what? you want to know. Your interrogators will enlighten you. “You have been involved in a foreign-backed plot,” they say, “to overthrow the regime in a soft revolution.” Or, “You have conspired with foreigners to create propaganda against the government.” Or you are accused of inciting “unrest,” and threatening what your captors refer to as “national security.” You argue: “None of these charges against me is true. So why should I agree to any of them?” Maybe because you are being threatened. Or maybe because your loved ones are being threatened. Perhaps you are under severe psychological pressure, or maybe even physical torture.
There are some Iranian authorities who don’t approve of these measures, and if you’re lucky you will be sent to a magistrate who might believe and release you. Who else can help? You think maybe God can save you, or at least keep you strong. You might think, “I was only peacefully standing up for what I believed in. Why did this have to happen to me? If or when I get out of here, will I continue to pursue my rights, even more courageously than before? Or should I lock myself away at home, in the hopes that those thick dossiers that my interrogators have collected about me will keep from growing any fatter?” Indeed, you may conclude that it’s safer to be silent and invisible, then to risk getting into trouble like this again.
You might feel alone. Very alone. But you are not alone. And we are not in Iran. We are here in America, or in places such as Europe, Asia, and Africa, where people are gathering for this global day of action. We have the freedom to speak out for those Iranians who are struggling to make their own voices heard.
Why are we speaking out? Because although some people in different parts of the world might have different ideas about what it means to be free, we share many basic values, such as: The right to freedom of opinion and expression, freedom of peaceful assembly and association. The right to be free from arbitrary arrest. The right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty according to the law.
Why are we speaking out? Because many Iranian authorities do care what the world says about them. If they didn’t, why would they monitor CNN and BBC 24 hours a day to see what these networks are saying about them? Why would they have created their own satellite TV stations to send their messages across the world? And why would they restrict foreign and local journalists, and clamp down on access to the internet?
Why are we speaking out? Because we know that remaining silent certainly won’t help those Iranians who are being wronged. Maybe because we know that what happens in Iran today will affect not only its roughly 70 million people, but also generations of Iranians to come. Because Iran is an important nation, and what happens in Iran will affect the Region, and what happens in the Region will affect the world.
Why are we speaking out? Because Iran is a sophisticated nation with a rich culture in civilization. The country has a large, educated youth population. It also has a history of democratic movements. Its people deserve much more than the injustices that they have been facing today. By gathering here today, we are urging the international community to uphold the Iranian people’s human rights as a matter of international concern. We are also sending a message that we want the Iranian people’s freedom of assembly, expression, and press to be observed. And we are calling for an end to state-sponsored violence, and accountability for crimes committed in Iran.
We have come here today to call for the immediate and unconditional release of all political prisoners, and prisoners of conscience… (mass applause) …including students, civil society activists, academics, and journalists. According to the press rights watch group Reporters Without Boarders, Iran has become the biggest jail for journalists in the world. Many of these kinds of people were in Iranian prisons even before the June 12th election. Take, for example, Silva [ed.—not sure how to spell last name], one of my former cellmates. She has been in jail for more than a year. She was an administrative assistant for a U.S.-Iran exchange program for health experts. Silva, an Iranian of Armenian ethnicity, was convicted of allegedly trying to incite a “soft revolution” in Iran, a charge I could have never believed to be true of her. Her arrest was indicative of the approach that some Iranian hard-liners have taken, claiming that practically anyone with any connections to the West is somehow trying to undermine the Iranian regime, when all people like Silva want to do is help their nation grow.
Tehran does have some legitimate security concerns. But hard-liners often exaggerate and exploit what they call “threats against the regime” to tighten their own grip on power. This approach has intensified over the last several weeks. Certain elements of the Iranian regime have been using what they call “national security” as an excuse to violently suppress the peaceful exercise of basic human and civil rights. But violence cannot ensure national security. Batons and handcuffs might scare people into submission in the short run, but can never win their hearts and minds.
This week the person who gave that first account I told you about earlier said, “The world must know this: that we, the Iranian people’s movement, will not stop until we succeed. Iran’s future belongs to the Iranian people,” he said, but he and many other Iranians want the world to stand in solidarity with their cause. And that’s what we, and people in more than 100 cities around the world, are doing today.
So let’s continue to participate in events like this, and letter writing campaigns to Iranian officials. And in the media, let’s keep this story alive. In these ways we can echo the voices of millions of Iranians demanding greater freedoms and liberties. And we can give them hope.
I learned of this power of international support when I was in prison, when I found out about the kinds of support I was getting from various individuals and groups around the world, and I was very fortunate for that support. It gave me strength, and hope, and I realized I was no longer alone. To the people of Iran: we want you to know that you are not alone. You have a whole world of supporters behind you. We are watching, and we stand with you.
More from Chicago’s July 25th rally