July 9, 2009


An Iranian Icon on Today's Protests
: A decade before the massive demonstrations of the last month, a young Iranian became a symbol of student protests—and spent years in prison for it. Ahmad Batebi, now 32 and living in Washington, talks to The Daily Beast’s Reza Aslan on the 10th anniversary of the uprising known as 18 Tir. (Reza Aslan, 7/08/09, Daily Beast)

Early on the morning of 18 Tir—the date according to the Iranian calendar—while most of the students were asleep, Basij forces raided the dorms of Tehran University, indiscriminately beating and arresting people. In the melee, a bullet whizzed by the ear of Ahmad Batebi, a young university student, and lodged itself in the chest of his friend. Batebi took his friend’s shirt off and used it to put pressure on the wound, but to no avail. He then ran to the front of the protests and held the shirt aloft for all to see, a witness to the massacre that had just taken place.

A photographer in the crowd snapped his picture. The next day, the image was splashed across the cover of The Economist and instantly became a symbol of the uprising: It was the lonely Chinese man standing before a phalanx of tanks at Tiananmen Square, or, more perhaps more fittingly, it was Neda Agha-Soltan slowly bleeding to death on the streets of Tehran, blood pouring from her mouth and nose.

The day after Batebi’s picture appeared, the police arrested him. He spent the next 10 years in prison, most of it in solitary confinement, in a cell the size of a bathtub. He was repeatedly tortured and forced to undergo a mock execution. The government wanted him to sign a statement saying the blood on the shirt was not blood at all—it was tomato sauce. Batebi refused.

After suffering two strokes, Batebi was temporarily released from prison in 2007 to receive medical attention. With the help of Kurdish militants, he fled Iran, smuggled first by car, then by donkey, through the mountains of Kurdistan into Iraq. He was granted asylum by United States in 2008 and now lives in Washington, D.C.

For 10 years, the government of Iran has allowed no commemoration of the events of 18 Tir. But this year, despite the brutal crackdown on protests, mass demonstrations have been planned, not only all over Iran, but all over the globe.

On the eve of the 10th anniversary of the day that changed his life forever, and may yet prove a catalyst for change in Iran, The Daily Beast sat down with Ahmad Batebi. [...]

How do you see the current crisis playing out?

The one thing history has taught us is that no government can defy the will of its people for long. The whole world is moving toward greater human rights and democracy. All people want these things. No one wants dictatorship. No government is powerful enough to stand against the will of the people forever. Chile, Argentina, Yugoslavia, etc. All of these dictatorships eventually collapsed, and the same thing will happen in Iran.

The people of Iran have turned on a light. The flame may dim a bit now and again, but it will never die. This is a long war, a gradual process. It may take another 30 years, but freedom and democracy will come to Iran.

Posted by Orrin Judd at July 9, 2009 9:33 AM
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