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Themes Prisoners of Conscience » Mohsen Sazegara

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Interviewed April 2010 and November 2010

Mohsen Sazegara is a former deputy prime minister of Iran and founder of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps who now serves as a leading supporter of the Iranian Green Movement.

In the lead-up to the Islamic Revolution in Iran, Sazegara served as a leading student activist against the Shah. After the Shah left the country in 1979, Sazegara traveled to Tehran from Paris with the Ayatollah Khomeini, joined the government of the Islamic Republic, and helped establish the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. Sazegara then served as deputy prime minister and in several other senior positions.

Eventually, Sazegara became disillusioned with Khomeini’s regime and left government to study history. He came to the conclusion that Khomeini’s government was acting in ways that were incompatible with the principles of Islam. Following the publication of his numerous writings in reformist papers and his calls for a referendum on the Iranian constitution, Sazegara was arrested and imprisoned several times. He protested his imprisonment with hunger strikes, which severely affected his health. He eventually was allowed to leave Iran to seek medical treatment.

Sazegara now lives in the United States and is an active supporter of the Iranian Green Movement. He serves as president of the Research Institute on Contemporary Iran and as a visiting fellow at the George W. Bush Institute in Dallas. 

I started hunger strike…That was first time I was arrested after-- by minister of intelligence of Iran. After five days, I was released. But after that-- after three month, I was arrested again, this time by its parallel successor, vis-- which was under control of the revolutionary guard. This time I was in prison for 114 days. Again I started hunger strike. I was on hunger strike for totally 79 days. First, I said that immediately I should be released, "I am just an opposition prisoner of conscience. So, according to the constitution, you don't have any right to arrest me." But they don't listen to you any way. Second, my second demand was everybody who was arrested with me, including my son, totally about 800 students, university students, were arrested on 2003, so my second demand was to release all the students who were arrested.

And third demand was that Ayatollah Khomeini, the leader, should apologize to the nation of Iran because of the judicial power of Iran, which is appointed by him. I knew that the third demand-- was-- of course, he-- he doesn't go for that. But I just wanted to launch the idea.

My wife knew about my demands, so when they arrested me she started to announce these demands every of them in five days. Every five days, she announced them, "This is his first demand, second demand and third demand."

At last, I was released because of several things. First the death of Zahra Kazemi the Canadian Iranian journalist. I didn't know while I was in jail but it was effective because she was killed in prison and there was a big scandal in Iran and in the world. Second, because of the pressure of some politicians, reformists and student groups.

And third, I think that I was very close to dieing you know, especially after the second hunger strike. After 56 days they promised me that, "Okay, you are free and everybody's free now. And so, break your hunger strike." I believed when Mr. Mortazavi, the general prosecutor of Tehran told me.

But after 20 days I found out that he lied and they don't want to release me. So, I started the second hunger strike, which took 23 days. You know, because of that I have heart problem, I already had heart surgery. And I stopped all my medicines.

Anyway-- totally they decided to release me by $600,000 bail. And when I was released I was hospitalized. My eye doctor and my heart doctor told me that, "You need surgery. And it would be better if you go out of Iran for medical treatment." So, I called my interrogator, I had his cell phone number, and told him that this is what my doctors have told me. "You have bail from me. And if I were you, you let me to go out because of my medical treatments. And if I come back again, I will be at your hands. And if I don't come back here, you will be lucky because one of the dissidents is outside Iran."

He told me that this is more than my authority, I should check with top officials, that we believe that they check with the-- the leader. It took about 40-- 42 days. Then he called me after 42 days-- he called me and said that, "Okay, we agree that you can go out of Iran so we will send you back your passport," because when they arrest you, they take everything. Your passport. Your bills. Your books. Everything. Your tapes, your computer, first.

And on January 2004, I left Iran. I went to England for eye surgery. I had two surgeries on my right eye. And it took about one year. But after that, for my heart treatments, everybody, recommended me that it's a good idea if I go to the United States.

So I had an invitation from Washington Institute for Near East Policy. And because that they had very good insurance for medical treatments, I accepted that s—three month fellowship. And I came to Washington, D.C. And I was hospitalized in Washington Hospital. But while I was in the United States after that three month, which was extended to more three month, totally six month-- I wanted to go back to Iran. I made a mistake on telephone. I talked to my mother and tell my friends that, "Okay, everything is finished and I'm on the way back."

In less than one week, they sentenced me to six years jail in absentia. Again, I announced that I don't care. I will come back. And if you arrest me, again I'll go on hunger strike. That was after Mr. Ahmadinejad first term election. Many of my friends recommended me that it would be better if I stay for a while because this time if they grab me, they will kill me. 

Iran is a Middle Eastern nation with a population of just over 77 million. Iran’s population is predominately Persian, and Persian is the official language. The Shia branch of Islam is the official state religion, and approximately 90-95 percent of the population belongs to the faith. The second-largest nation in the region, Iran contains some of the world’s largest oil and gas reserves. The energy industry makes up a large portion of Iran’s economy, and the nation is one of the founding members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC).

The Islamic Republic of Iran is the world's only remaining theocratic state, in which political leadership is vested in religious authorities. The Islamic Republic was created in 1979 following a revolution against the Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi. Although many elements of Iranian society led the revolution, ultimately Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his followers gained control of the country. In December 1979, the country adopted an Islamic constitution providing that “all civil, criminal, financial, economic, administrative, cultural, military, political and all other statutes and regulations be in keeping with Islamic [law].”

Following adoption of the new constitution, Khomeini became the “Supreme Leader,” the ultimate political and religious authority in the country. Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Hoseyni Khamenei has been Supreme Leader since Khomeini’s death in 1989. The Supreme Leader is selected by a body of Islamic scholars called the Assembly of Experts. The Supreme Leader is responsible for the military and security concerns of Iran and has the final say on all issues. The president of Iran, who is elected by the public from a list approved by the Guardian Council (a body comprised of clerics and jurists), is nominally responsible for administration of the executive branch and is subject to the authority of the Supreme Leader.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected president in 2005. Ahmadinejad was viewed as an ultraconservative and his views a stark contrast from the relatively reformist policies of his predecessor, President Mohammad Khatami. Despite promises of equality and fighting corruption, Ahmadinejad and his administration cracked down on civil liberties and more strictly enforced religious-based morality laws.

Ahmadinejad was reelected in 2009 in an election widely viewed as fraudulent. Following the June 2009 election, hundreds of thousands of Iranians took to the streets in the largest protests in the country since 1979, which came to be known as the “Green Revolution.” The government responded to the peaceful protestors with a massive campaign of intimidation, violence, and limits on freedoms. Universities were closed down, media outlets and internet resources censored, and rights to assembly restricted.

In June 2013, Hassan Rouhani was elected President and replaced Ahmadinejad. Rouhani has a reputation as a relatively moderate reformer and has promised additional freedoms and rights. It remains to be seen whether or not these promises will be fulfilled.

According to Freedom House, Iran is one of the least-free countries in the world. In its most recent report, Iran received a score of six in both the political rights and civil liberties categories, where one represents most free and seven represents least free. Iran has been the subject of numerous resolutions at the United Nations condemning the country’s human rights record. Among other things, the government uses summary arrest and execution against its political opponents. The death penalty is applied even for nonviolent crimes, including adultery. Radio and television broadcasting are under the control of the government and provide only government-approved content. Women are denied equal rights in marriage and other areas.


More on this theme from Mohsen Sazegara

Mohsen Sazegara: Prison Hunger Strike His hunger strike in prison and his decision to leave Iran.

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Mohsen Sazegara: Role of Women in Iran The role of women freedom advocates in Iran. Mohsen Sazegara: Confronting Khomeini His decision to confront Ayatollah Khomeini. More +