Abdorrahman Boroumand Center

for Human Rights in Iran

https://www.iranrights.org
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University students have played a vital role in contemporary Iran’s political landscape. The university has been the safe haven for the exchange of views, protests, and for voicing students’ problems and concerns. With the Cultural Revolution and the resulting temporary closure of all colleges in 1980, students were persecuted and silenced and the university environment was effectively shut down. In 1999, after nearly two decades, the cities of Tehran and Tabriz witnessed their first widespread student protests. The events of July 1999 in Tehran received extensive coverage: The protests had begun with students protesting the Bill to Amend the Law of the Press, and had subsequently led to attacks by the security forces on the student dormitories located in Kuy-e Daneshgah (“University Dormitory Complex”), [1] the severe beatings of the students and the destruction of their dormitory facilities. All these occurrences resulted in widespread protests outside Tehran University. Protests at other universities, [2] however, especially Tabriz University, where a large number of students were killed, wounded, arrested, sentenced, and banned from continuing their education, did not get as much attention. [3]

While domestic and foreign media were busy covering the events of the Tehran University Dormitory Complex, students in Tabriz gathered to protest the attack on the Tehran University dormitories. This assembly, as reported to the Abdorrahman Boroumand Center for Human Rights in Iran (ABC) in interviews conducted with eyewitnesses, began on July 11, 1999, from Tabriz University’s campus. The assembly was quashed in its final hours by armed forces who entered the University grounds, ultimately resulting in the death and injury of a number of individuals and the arrest of a large number of students [4]. Student protesters were not only suppressed by security forces in Tabriz, but were also arrested and prosecuted. In Tehran, judicial authorities sought to create the illusion of justice by subjecting some of the officials responsible for the attack on the University Dormitory Complex to a trial, in which they were exonerated except for one soldier convicted of stealing a razor, and by paying dieh (“blood money”) to some of the victims of security force violence. In Tabriz, however, perpetrators were not held accountable even to that minimal extent.

“There were two thousand people on the University campus”- one eyewitness

 

Tabriz University Protests in Solidarity with Tehran Students

Tabriz University’s protest gathering took place on Sunday, July 11, 1999, two days after the events at the Tehran University dormitories. In interviews with ABC, the protest’s organizers, activists, and eyewitnesses all confirmed that the gathering had been organized to show support for the Tehran University demonstrations and to protest the attack on the Tehran University Dormitory Complex, the news of which had reached Tabriz students on July 10, 1999. Hamshahri newspaper also mentioned “opposition to the Bill to Amend the Law of the Press” as another reason for the assembly. [5]

According to eyewitness accounts, the July 11, 1999, gatherings had been organized the previous day. Kahlil Alizadeh Azar, member of the Tabriz University’s Independent Association for Students told ABC: 

“We wrote a communique in the name of the Center on July 10, and typed it up with some other students at the offices of the Omid-e Zanjan publication. We made 500 copies and tried to distribute them inside the University and around town. Most of our friends at the Association were unaware of the contents of the declaration and we bore responsibility for it, not them. We distributed the communique on July 10, and made a request to have a sit-in on July 11, at 10 o’clock in the morning.”

As a preventive measure, the students went to the office of the Governor of Tabriz on the morning of July 11, to inform him of the assembly and obtain a permit. Khalil Alizadeh Azar told ABC: “Mr. [Ali] Mehri and I went to meet with Mr. [Abbas] Khorshidi, [the Governor of Tabriz]. He received us without a prior appointment. We gave him the declaration and requested a permit. Since the sit-in we had proposed was to take place inside the University grounds, Mr. Khorshidi said that the University was the proper authority to issue a permit, not him. He also warned us that the Province Security Council had issued an order to shoot if we left the campus, and that we were not allowed to leave the University grounds.” [6]

The gatherings started on Sunday at 9 o’clock in the morning on the University grounds: one group was present with an initial 40 to 50 people following a call by Tabriz University’s Independent Association for Students, [7] along with another group of 50 to 60 people invited by the Tabriz University’s Islamic Association. [8] Eyewitnesses say that the number of participants gradually increased, and after a short time, the two separate assemblies were indistinguishable from one another. Regarding the number of participants, most of the eyewitnesses confirmed that the size of the crowd was remarkable and unprecedented. According to one eyewitness, when he entered the campus on Sunday he saw a crowd that he had never seen before at the University that was around two thousand people in size. [9]  A Basij source, close to the security forces, estimated the size of the crowd present on the University grounds at two thousand before noon, and around five thousand after 2 o’clock in the afternoon. [10]

Aref Salimi, another member of Tabriz University’s Independent Association for Students, told ABC: “Between 12 and 1 PM, we were joined by several busloads of Sahand University students. They joined the student assembly on the street in front of the campus.” These assemblies were initially peaceful. Following the gathering of plainclothes forces outside the University and their attempts to take pictures and videos, the students went outside the campus. The first clashes were in the form of stone throwing, started by Basijis (plainclothes government militias) and, according to another protester who had joined the Tabriz University protesters from Azad University, seminary students gathered in front of the University. [11] Student protesters reciprocated by throwing stones as well, and several of them were injured in front of the University.

One of the organizers told ABC about how the confrontations started: 

“We had informed the University [officials] and the Governor’s Office that [the sit-in] would take place in an open space in front of the University’s central library and the Office of the University President…We had not anticipated all the students attending because it was the final exams period. That was where our gathering started. Since we knew about the order to shoot, we were trying to calm the students down a bit, while at the same time recognizing [our] right to protest. There were a number of people in this assembly, however, who were taking pictures and videos, which was highly provocative in those circumstances. Some of the students who knew those pictures could potentially create problems for them, tried to hold the individuals and grab their videos from them. 

The peaceful assembly became tense, by the students themselves and the people who were filming from the outside; I don’t know whether they were students or not, [but] that led the Islamic Association students to move toward the Agriculture Department. Unfortunately, students jumped outside the campus over the iron-bar fence. Between what was said at the Technical [and Engineering] Department and the Agriculture Department, they exited the University from two sides. And unfortunately we were not able to continue the gathering where we were, and we joined the other students and tried to control the situation because we knew they might be shot if they left the campus. Fire trucks were stationed outside the University and were responding by water cannons. Their reaction was not that violent. Unfortunately the Basij Force station was close to the Agriculture Department, to the right (if your back is to the University’s main entrance). From that area, there was some violence on the part of the Basijis and plainclothes [militias]; basically just throwing stones. The police were not intervening. “[12]

Another eyewitness, Alireza Rayegan, stated that there were also other incidents involving seminary students who had gathered outside the University: 

“Of course after the gathering had started, it slowly moved toward the Agriculture Department which was close to Tabriz University’s North Entrance. They had closed the gates. A number of seminary students had gathered in front of the Tabriz Seminary, which is very close to the University. Students were chanting slogans on the inside, and on the other side, it seemed as though they were standing at the ready… Groups of ten and twenty people were waiting outside in front of the University… Physical clashes began in the very first hours, after 11 AM,  noon, and 1 PM. At first it consisted of stone throwing, with seminary students. Sometimes it was the seminary students who would charge; other times, it was the University students… Every once in a while, student organizers would talk to other students and the students would retreat back inside the University and the gate would close. From then on, the seminary students would come to the University’s iron bar fence and throw stones from there.” [13]

Once the fighting subsided, students went back inside the University at the request of student activists. However, according to eyewitnesses, emotions were running high, and at around 11 AM, the students broke down the University’s main entrance and came onto Bahman 29th Boulevard: “The street was covered with the Anti-Riot Force, dressed in special uniforms, helmets, and shields.” [14]

The clashes outside the University increased after 6 PM. The attacks came mostly from plainclothes militias; in certain instances, regular people attempted to join the students. Alireza Rayegan described those hours: 

“The fighting continued until early evening, and it was slowly getting dark. Plainclothes militias had come into the hospital by then. Some of them had gone to Imam Khomeini Hospital, a section of which is part of the Tabriz Medical Sciences University. They would go to the emergency room there... They even stopped ambulances in surrounding streets and dragged out any students that they were carrying. We saw this from afar with our own eyes, at a distance from the South Entrance.”

In those hours, the back-and-forth skirmish going on between the students and the plainclothes militias continued in the area between the University [entrance] and the Basij Building Number 2, located to the right of the University’s main entrance. In the meantime, shootings had started. [15] According to eyewitness reports, the clashes were at their peak at around 8 or 9 PM. Plainclothes militias and even the Law Enforcement Force were shooting at the students, and several other students were wounded. Armed Basij militias marched toward the University’s main building and were ultimately able to enter the University grounds and occupy it: 

“The assembly continued until 8 and 9 PM. Like most assemblies, the people who participated in it were overcome by thirst and hunger, and were the targets of stone throwing and shooting. Many students had been wounded. The assembly slowly disintegrated under those circumstances, and Tabriz University was, unfortunately, occupied by Basij forces. So the University was conquered that day; the final exams were postponed and the University was shut down. Students were the target of unspeakable violence … To this day, we have no [information] on anyone’s death but we witnessed many students getting wounded, students that were with us at hospitals and even in jail. They were injured in the legs, arms, and various other places, male and female students.” [16]

The names of the dead and wounded at Tabriz University on July 11 was never announced, but the next day, government authorities reported the killing of a Basiji seminary student named Mohammad Javad Farhangi. On July 9, 2016, the Dana website (close to Iran’s fundamentalists) published an account of this Basiji’s life and activities in which it claimed that he had been “shot in the chest” during the July 11 protests and in the course of the clashes between the students and Basij militias. [17] Akbar Atri, a former member of the Central Council of the student association “Tahkim-e Vahdat”, who followed the Tabriz University events, told ABC that, according to reports they had received, Mohammad Javad Farhangi  “had been shot in the back,” indicating friendly fire. [18] No government official has ever said anything about the students being armed in the July 11 events in Tabriz. Student sources also reported the killing of a female student named Mojgan Tavakkoli. 

Student activist and member of the Independent Association of Students, Aref Salimi, told ABC: “The news of the death of a female student named Mojgan Tavakkoli spread in all universities in Tabriz. University officials were saying, however, that no such person was registered as a student during the academic year, but some students were saying that Ms. Tavakkoli had finished her education and was at Tabriz University in those days to obtain her degree.” [19], a matter that has been denied by government officials. [20]

In July 1999, Tehran’s press was largely busy covering the University of Tehran’s Dormitory Complex events and rarely covered the events at Tabriz University at that time. On July 12, however, Hamshahri newspaper reported on the students’ “peaceful assembly” resulting in violence at the hands of around 100 plainclothes militiamen. In the following weeks and months, after government officials had alluded to it, the Tabriz University events received coverage in the press, but without any details. Most of these reports were about the detention and conviction of some of Tabriz universities’ student activists.

“Tabriz University students have been subjected to more injustice [than their counterparts].” - Mehdi Karrubi, then-President of the Islamic Consultative Assembly

 

Officials’ Reactions to Protest

On July 12, 1999, the day after the events, Tabriz County Governor’s Office issued an announcement in which it alluded to “the peaceful assembly by Tabriz University’s student organizations regarding the recent events at Tehran University’s Dormitory Complex, conducted in equanimity and dignity, and with reasonable actions on the part of the all of the faithful and intelligent participants” and the intention of “a small group of unknown elements” to attack the Tabriz Basij’s District 2 Building.

In its third announcement concerning the July 11 events at Tabriz University, issued on July 15, 1999, the Tabriz Governor’s Office also emphasized:

“No permit was issued to anyone for demonstrations outside the University grounds, and […] [we] condemn the actions of those individuals (students as well as non-students) who disrupted the students’ peaceful assembly from the very first minutes, and moved out of the University campus and intended to march into the city – and this was the starting point of the unrest… of course we distinguish between the majority of Tabriz University’s wise and worthy students and a bunch of agitators and delinquents […].”

Paragraph 9 of this 13-paragraph announcement expressly pointed to Tabriz University’s Independent Association for Students as the culprit and declared their assembly and movement outside University grounds on the day of the events at Tabriz University as illegal, and further stated: “The matter is being prosecuted to the full extent of the law.” [21]

Former Tabriz University student activists, including organisers for Tabriz University’s Independent Association for Students, reject the allegation of their group being an “illegal entity” because the Center had already asked for a permit. Khalil Alizadeh says:

“According to the Iranian Constitution, trade union and political activities are free and legal, provided they are not in violation of [the fundamental principles of] Islam. You must make a request for a permit to the Interior Ministry’s Article 10 Commission for [Political] Parties for your activities. We had started that process and our work and our activities were completely legal; that is, we had made use of the legal loopholes and the opportunities the law provided based on the legal framework that exists in the Islamic Republic. Our activities were completely legal but they were not political.”

On the issue of the permit, Aref Salimi told ABC:

“We had made a request in December of 1998. After some time had passed and we had gotten no response, we made our objections. They said ‘you have written by-laws to register a trade union entity. (The initial name of our entity was Tabriz University Students’ Trade Center.) Pursuant to the law, no trade union entity has the right to conduct activities at the University.’ So we changed the by-laws to organize a political entity. They should have responded  to us in three months, in accordance with the law, but they didn’t. So we decided that we would have a protest gathering on such and such day and at such and such time. We wrote the announcement and distributed it. This was about two months before July 11. Then the Student Basij threatened that they would confront us if we went ahead with the protest. The University President made a promise to us that they would give a response to our request if we refrained from having the protest assembly. The next month coincided with the events of July 11, and they never gave a response to our request for a permit after that.” [22]

Two years after the events of July 11, the authorities had yet to respond to the Tabriz University’s Independent Association for Students’ request for a permit. [23]

 

Judiciary’s Response: Punishment for Students, Impunity for Perpetrators

July 11 commenced a period of severe suppression, marked by violence and unfair trials for many students. In its July 27 announcement, The Tabriz Governor’s Office stated the number of people arrested at the events was 260, emphasizing that they consisted “mostly of individuals who were not students, all of whom were freed in the initial hours or days, with the exception of 29 persons who have remained at the disposal of competent authorities for further investigations.” The number of wounded at the clashes was announced as 182. According to their classmates, a number of the students who had been injured or arrested on that day did not return to the University after conditions had normalized and the new academic semester had started.” [24]

In spite of the repeated demands of certain officials, including the Ministry of Higher Education and the Ministry of Health, to “continually follow-up on the issues and outcomes of the Tehran University’s Dormitory Complex tragedy and the dreadful and deplorable events of Tabriz University,” [25] it was ultimately the unarmed students who were expelled, arrested, and convicted, and nothing was done about the primary instigators who were armed.

On September 16, 1999, Hamshahri newspaper reported that “21 of the main people responsible for the July 11 events at Tabriz University” had been convicted, and, quoting the Head of East Azerbaijan Province Revolutionary Courts, that these individuals had received sentences ranging from 3 months to 9 years in prison. [26]

Although government and Judiciary officials never announced the names of the people arrested in relation to the events of July 11 at Tabriz University, ABC’s research indicates that at least 200 people were arrested on the very first day, mainly students. ABC is in possession of the names of many of those individuals. Khalil Alizadeh Azar, Aref Salimi, and Nader Zamen, are three former Tabriz University student activists who have spoken out regarding the manner in which they were convicted. The first two, both organizers of the Tabriz University gathering, provided testimony about the matter for the first time, and stated that their trial was swift and initially without the presence of an attorney, but that they were able to have access to a lawyer in the subsequent stages of the proceedings.

Khalil Alizadeh Azar told ABC regarding the proceedings:

“None of us had access to an attorney at first. We were all at the Information Ministry. One group was transferred to the Revolutionary Guards Corps’ Information Section and they were severely tortured, but those that remained in the Information Ministry were in somewhat better conditions. We first went inside the courtroom without any lawyers, and the only thing we were told was to state our last defense. We had not even begun our defense yet, hadn’t even presented our first defense, and they were telling us to state our last defense. The sentence they issued for us was based on the charge of ‘an illegal entity [acting] to disrupt public order and security’ … But our entity wasn’t illegal since it was going through the process of being registered … We tried so hard when we were in prison to find a criminal law book to at least see what law the sentence they had issued for us was based on, and whether it applied to us or not. You may not believe this, but it was much easier to find narcotic drugs [in prison] than it was to get a hold of a law book based on which we could defend ourselves.

People who were tried before me got prison sentences of more than eight years. But when I went to court, there was an issue: When they asked me to write my last defense, I wrote down that I did not have an attorney and did not know what the case was about; so I could not possibly write down my last defense because I had not even presented my first defense. And I wrote that I wanted an attorney, and since I could not afford one, I wanted a court-appointed lawyer pursuant to the Constitution. I asked my friends that went in after me to write down that same sentence as well. There were three of us standing in front of the door to the courtroom and we all wrote the same things. It was after that that the sentences were reduced. The President of Tabriz University was pressured, so to say, into designating one of the law professors at the University as our attorney. The gentlemen presented a defense based on the law and most of our friends were freed.” [27]

In his interview with ABC, Aref Salimi stated:

We were sentenced to [sentences ranging from] three months to eight years in prison at trial. I got ten months in prison. Two of the guys from the Association got eight-year sentences. The rest got ten months, two years, and sentences like that. It seemed like they had handed down the sentences based on the year we had first matriculated at the University: Seniors and other more advanced students had become well-known during their four years, and had therefore gotten harsher sentences. Apparently, they had initially issued a death sentence in the case of one of the wounded students (Nader Zamen) who wasn’t a member of the Association. … The other students were released after between three to five months. Two female students had also been summoned and interrogated that year … One of them was from Bukan, and the other was from Orumieh or Salmas.”

Mr. Alizadeh Azar spent a total of 108 days, and Mr. Salimi about three months, at the Information Administration Detention Center and At Tabriz Central Prison. Nader Zamen who had been injured, was arrested in the town of Maragheh on July 25 of that same year by Tabriz Information Administration agents, while he was still going through convalescence, and taken to Tabriz. Mr. Zamen, who had been subjected to severe torture during detention in order to confess to the killing of the Mohammad Javad Farhangi, served a total of about one year in prison. All of these students were facing three to ten-year prison sentences but almost all of them were released after serving a portion of their time. A number of students were barred from continuing their education.

 

Missing from the Tehran and Tabriz Protest Narratives: Women Students

The role of women in the student protests of July 1999 in Tehran and Tabriz is one of their most opaque aspects. After more than two decades, accounts of the role of women in those events are nearly non-existent. Journalists and women’s rights activists consider this to be the result of a form of “hidden discrimination” against women.

Assieh Amini, journalist and women’s rights activist; Javad Montazeri, photojournalist; and another journalist were among the first people who were able to enter Tehran University’s Dormitory Complex the day after it was attacked. Amini recalls that male students expressed concern about the condition of female students that day. They told her that although the female students had not been physically attacked on the day of the events, they had stood behind the iron bar fences all night until that morning, side by side with the other students. 

“Since the physical attack had taken place on the men’s dormitory, naturally we went there, and it was normal that the attack on the men’s dormitory became the main story. But after the names of those who had been killed (Mr. Ezzat Ebrahimnejad and Ms. Fereshteh Alizadeh) were published, we noticed that media attention, as well as speeches and interviews that were given and published later, focused more on Ezzat Ebrahimnejad. A lot of people haven’t heard of Ms. Fereshteh Alizadeh, whose name has been recorded as one of the people killed in the July 9 events.” [28]

A female student activist who was a student at Tabriz’ Shahid Madani University and wishes to remain anonymous  reports that “girls, especially students from smaller towns, are more fearless in protests,” and that on the day of the confrontations “they were very present in the assemblies” [29]. Another activist said this about his observations of the final hours of the Tabriz University protests of July 11: 

“It was early evening, and it was before anyone had entered the campus from the main entrance. We noticed that several female students that we knew (not members of the Association’s Founding Council, but student activists) had passed out in front of the Agriculture Department. I asked Mr. Ali Mehri if he could possibly take them to the hospital in his car, since he had a car. Mr. Mehri put them in his car and exited from the main entrance and we saw them get arrested in front of the University’s main entrance. That was the last time we saw Mr. Mehri and we assumed that he and several female students had been arrested.”

Women’s active presence at this assembly can also be ascertained from strongly worded announcements issued by government entities. For instance, in a letter addressed to the Minister of Higher Education, a number of Tabriz University professors stated: 

“When popular forces got a hold of the hooligans, they asked the girls to leave the premises, and no harm came to those wicked girls. But then newspapers that are manipulated by [anti-revolutionary] foreigners write that the girls’ clothes were taken off at the University and they were flogged, quoting the people of Tabriz’ representative [in the Parliament], and [make up] other similar stories.” [30]

 

Breached Obligations

Twenty years after the events of July 1999, many questions remain. The exact number of the dead and wounded and the number of individuals arrested and convicted in connection with the events at the Tehran University Dormitory Complex and Tabriz University are still not clear. The lack of official transparency violates families’ and society’s right to know the truth, which is essential for securing justice. The state’s response to the July 1999 protests testifies to its lack of tolerance for assemblies, independent organized action, and public expression of discontent. 

The judiciary not only took no action against those responsible for injuring and killing students, but also arrested student protesters and interrogated them without the presence of an attorney. It tried a number of other students in unfair trials on charges such as acting against national security and disrupting public order, sentencing them to up to eight years in prison. They and others were expelled from university. The lasting result of the state’s response to the protests was the strengthening of the culture of impunity in the law enforcement and security apparatus. Two decades later, students continue to be suppressed, attacked, and arrested. Since July 1999, thousands more students have been injured or detained during various protests. Many were deprived of their freedom and their right to continue their education for insisting on their rights to freedom of speech, association, and peaceful assembly which Iran, as a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, is obligated to respect and uphold.

 

 

[1] The account of Mohammad Kazem Kuhi, Tehran University’s Dormitory Complex Director General, who was present at the Dormitory Complex from the start of the July 9: 

 

“Usually, it was customary that when students wanted to protest, they would form a gathering that would extend to Jalal Al-Ahmad [Avenue] or the Dormitories’ main entrance. We would coordinate with the Police Force, the General Herassat (“Safeguarding”) and the Ministry of Higher Education Herassat, and these assemblies would run very smoothly without any incidents … The difference between this assembly and other assemblies was that the Special Unit’s armored vehicles were stationed in front of the Dormitory Complex, with officers wearing anti-riot gear, led by a person named Sardar Amirahmadi. As soon as I saw that scene, I personally asked that individual for all of them to leave, because I believed the way in which the Special Unit forces were stationed would be very provocative to the students … But what he did in response to my request was to throw me in the water ditch. In the meantime, the students who had witnessed his actions were enraged by them and came out [of the Complex] … Even after what he had done, I still asked him to give us about five minutes so that I could return the students inside and even convince them to leave the area around the iron bar fence. His reaction, however, continued to be abusive and insulting, and then he issued the order to attack the Complex … The important point was, however, that a large group of individuals who were in plainclothes and seemed completely organized … went inside the Complex, and by moving toward the building that housed foreign students, and even attacking students that were asleep, initiated the start of the clashes.” Mohammad Kazem Kuhi’s Interview with ISNA, July 13, 2019.

 

[2] On that same day, students from Mashhad’s Ferdowsi University, Khorasan Medical Sciences University, Esfahan University, Esfahan Medical Sciences University, and Shiraz University were able to conduct protest assemblies, the details of which are not available. Hamshahri newspaper, “Students from several universities across the country declare their solidarity with Tehran students”, Monday, July 12, 1999, number 1874.

 

[3] The marginalization of the Tabriz University events in comparison with those of the Tehran University Dormitory Complex was so pronounced that the Speaker of Parliament at the time labelled it “twofold oppression” in a meeting with the students. One year after the July 1999 events, in a meeting with the members of Tabriz University’s Islamic Association of Students’ Central Council, Mehdi Karrubi stated: “Even though thus far nothing has been done regarding the punishment of the principal individuals responsible for the Tehran University Dormitory Complex events, the country’s general public sentiments and especially the Supreme Leader’s, the President’s and other officials’ declarations of sympathy, have somewhat alleviated the pain of Tehran University Dormitory Complex students; [this has not been done for Tabriz University students] and therefore Tabriz University students’ pain and oppression is twofold.” Ettela’at newspaper, Sunday, August 14, 2000.