“Freedom is Not Free”: Conversation with former roommate of Majid Tavakoli

Nov 30, 20100 comments

Student Activist, Majid Tavakoli

In early November, Amnesty West hosted its regional conference, “Shine a Light: 50 Years of Activism”. One of the many workshops included “Truth Bombs and Notebooks,” a discussion about citizen journalism, the role of Iran’s students in the movement, and Amnesty West’s Special Focus Case: student activist, Majid Tavakoli. Amnesty West generously invited U4I to join the workshop and help personalize Majid Tavakoli’s case and those of other Iranian students facing similar circumstances. (Download a PDF of the presentation: Amnesty-West-Conf: Building the Narrative). We were fortunate enough to connect with Majid Tavakoli’s roommate of two-semesters, “PM,” who detailed, with insights from his former (but still detained) roommate, the impact and importance of international support and solidarity with Iran’s students and rights activists.

U4I: How is Majid doing right now? Are there any updates to his current status? PM: Majid is now imprisoned in Rajaaee Shahr prison in Karaj, Tehran. His mental status is quite fine. However, he is suffering from physical weakness because he went on a food strike some months ago. He needs medical treatment and the [care available] is not sufficient for him. According to IRI’s law, all prisoners should be granted  temporary release to visit their families. However he is deprived of this right. Additionally, until one month ago, he was unable to meet his family in prison though this is a basic right strictly emphasized by law. U4I: What inspired Majid to become active, especially knowing the risks? PM: Majid and I were roommates for two semesters. At the beginning of his studies he was religious and in support of the government. As time passed, he became involved in some critical activities performed by opposition student groups on campus and started a student journal named “khat-e-sefr”. He published articles criticizing the theocracy and the dominance of clerics in politics. In fact, he became a religious reformist… We were student and political activists who defended and supported Human Rights. I consider Majid both a student [and] reformist political leader who believed in Human Rights and tried to support it. U4I: Does he know that people are campaigning on his behalf? PM: Yes, he is in contact with his friends outside of the prison via phone calls. He was informed of the campaigns and activities of Human Right Activists. He appreciates all the efforts being done in support of him and other prisoners of conscience. U4I: Can you speak to the importance of ordinary people worldwide taking action on behalf of Majid and all others enduring similar abuses in Iran? PM: Nowadays, any action done [globally is] is transferred to Iran and also to prisoners by some intermediaries. We, as human right activists and as democracy movement activists, appreciate other nations’ support for Human Rights. Human Rights are universal and its violations should provoke reactions globally. It is very important for those activists who risk their lives… to be appreciated either by their compatriots or by people from outside of the country. Additionally, the international awareness of the situation in Iran will put pressure on the IRI to abide by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. U4I: When Majid gave that speech on Student’s Day last year, do you think he anticipated being arrested? PM: I was in contact with Majid before he got arrested on Student Day [December 7, 2009]. Actually, the idea for the website “Daneshjoonews.com” was his. I am just telling that to emphasize that he was also trying to encourage activists outside to be more involved in the movement.  Before Student Day, he told me and a few friends that he had decided to give a speech at Amir-Kabir University to speak out against government suppression. We were sure that his attendance at this gathering and his speech would result in his detention, especially considering his previous activities that twice led to his arrest. I, and other close friends, tried to convince him to revise his decision but he was persistent. He reasoned that if we retreat [from] our basic rights, in holding peaceful protests inside campuses, we [would] have to retreat [from] the worst level of dictatorship. He was reasoning that as a prominent student leader, his speech would give the courage to other students to stand for their rights. He used to say: “Freedom is not free.” He is very clever and knew that his presence in the aforementioned gathering would have a remarkable effect on student activism and would encourage them to more actively engage in social and political activities, and it actually did. U4I: How did he handle the hijab situation following his arrest? Did he know that thousands of men worldwide cross-dressed to show support? PM: He was quite relaxed and never regretted it. As I know when he was arrested he was not wearing Hijab. He used it to escape from university security guards and from intelligence agents. But 30 minutes after his escape, he was arrested without any Hijab. When they brought him to prison and investigated him about the way he used for escape, he confessed that he used Hijab to distract and to trick security guards. After this confession they forced him to wear a Chador and simulate his appearance during his escape. They took pictures and also forced him to make a video confession but he did not abide by their demands and resisted against video taped confessions.  About the reactions afterwards, I should say we were all shocked by the way Iranians, as well as the international community, reacted. The campaign to support him with men wearing women’s attire was a brilliant idea and proved the advancement of men’s culture. When he found out about the Men with Hijab Campaign, he was amazed by the reactions. During the initial period of his detention, he spent nearly 6 months in solitary cell. He was not aware of the reactions outside prison and not aware of campaign in support of him. He told his friends that when he was in solitary cell, investigators showed pictures of him wearing chador published on websites. The investigators told him that people outside prison were making fun of him, and they even told him that we, his friends and peers, signed a statement condemning his act. However, he said that he did not believe those lies. When he came out of solitary cell, he was informed what an amazing campaign had been built in favor of him.

Next Steps: Take Action!

  • Mail postcards highlighting Students’ Day and encourage your friends, networks, and organizations to do the same!
  • Participate in e-letter campaigns addressed to various non-Iranian and Iranian officials echoing the demands of Iran’s students.
  • Pass resolutions of support for Iran’s students in conjunction with your student union or associated body. Encourage letters of support signed by university officials. Find a sample resolution and more information about passing resolutions here.
  • Make videos with your student groups to a) express solidarity and b) highlight their day’s actions with the aim of reaching and speaking to students inside Iran. If you host events, make sure to get plenty of footage and send it to share@united4iran.org.
  • Learn more here by visiting http://students4iran.org.