"We ask that our dear colleagues and other imprisoned educators, some of whom have completed more than half of their prison term, be freed. Their freedom will undoubtedly be the best present for the start of the new academic year".
Statement of the Iran Teachers' Union on the occasion of the start of the 2012-13 academic year and World Teacher's Day. (October 5)
Many countries around the world celebrate teachers on October 5. In Iran, however, where teachers are deterred from expressing their opinion or holding beliefs deemed incompatible with the official orthodoxy, the celebration is tainted with grief. For students and families of dissident teachers who were executed, were purged from their teaching position, or are in prison, Teachers' Day is a day of remembrance.
Today scores of teachers are either in prison or awaiting sentencing; they are being punished for expressing their views, or for their political or union activities.1 Many have been subjected to torture and have been forced to confess to crimes they did not commit. Among them is Abdollah Momeni, teacher and former student activist, who was arrested in 2009 and sentenced to 4 years and 11 months prison for "colluding to act against national security and disseminating propaganda against the regime."
In a letter written from prison, Momeni reported having been tortured repeatedly for responses that were not to the liking of his interrogators and forced to rehearse his confessions several times before his court appearance.2
Three of these imprisoned teachers have been sentenced to death. Abdolreza Ghanbari, for example, a lecturer at Payam-e-Nour University was arrested in early 2010 and sentenced to death on the charge of "enmity towards God" after being forced to confess. Ghanbari, who had previously been arrested, suspended from teaching, and exiled for his involvement with the ITTA, a teachers union dissolved in 2007, is not known to belong to any political party.3 Yet, unsolicited emails from an armed opposition group are reported to have been the evidence used against him in court.4
The fate of two other teachers sentenced to death deserves urgent attention for, like Farzad Kamangar, the young Kurdish teacher executed in May 2010 on trumped-up charges;5 they belong to an ethnic and religious minority. Hashem Sha'bani Amouri and Hadi Rashedi are ethnic Arab teachers in the south of Iran, where poverty and discrimination cause chronic protests and rioting, and where the authorities can more easily use accusations of separatism to dispose of unwanted elements. Featured on 13 December 2011 in a program aired by Iran's state-controlled English-language Press TV, they appeared to "confess" to the allegations against them, prior to the trial. Aside from the fact that international fair trial standards guarantee the right not to be forced to incriminate oneself or to confess guilt, these "confessions" are ripe with language that is familiar to many former political prisoners whose interrogators forced to confess. Iranian courts frequently accept "confessions" extracted under duress as evidence." In an interview with a Farsi language website (Roozonline), Kamal Albashoka, a relative of one of the detainees arrested along with the teachers, insisted on the fact that the activities for which Rashedi and Sha'bani are punished were legitimate:
"What they were asking for was an end to [ethnic and religious] discrimination, the creation of employment opportunities for the [Arab] population, and the right to teach in their native language, things that are the people's natural right, based on the law;"
"that is, they weren't asking for anything illegal. Unfortunately [the authorities have] charge[d] them with these bogus allegations of "enmity with God," "acting against national security."6
These particularly harsh sentences are not fortuitous. The Islamic Republic's leaders are well aware of the importance of teachers for their influence on the youth in particular and on society as whole, and maintain tight control over their views and activities. In the immediate aftermath of the Revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini, making special reference to teachers and educators, ordered that specific rules for their selection be implemented. For him, teachers are not "ordinary people;" they are educators of those who will be entrusted with the country's future. Thus, if they fail and do not produce committed religious children, they can be held responsible:
"this is betraying a nation, betraying a society, and betraying Islam..." The current Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, has also stressed the key role of teachers in shaping children through their teaching and their behavior. "It is the teacher who can make us brave or coward, merciful or unforgiving, self-sacrificing or selfish ...It is the teacher who can make us religious, virtuous, chaste or, God Forbid, unrestrained and improper."7
These are not rhetorical statements meant for Teacher's Days. During the cultural revolution of the early 1980s, many teachers were executed,8 imprisoned, and thousands were purged from schools and universities. Since then, a well-oiled selection machine has eliminated those suspected of dissidence.
"The Law on the Selection ("Gozinesh") of Teachers and Employees in [the Ministry of] Education and Development," is the founding document for vetting teachers. The law is a prime example of the breach of a number of human rights enumerated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights of 1966, to which Iran is a signatory, including the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, the right to freedom of speech, and the right to freedom of association, just to name a few.9
The Law's Code of Procedure, further elaborating on the provisions of the law and the manner of its implementation, provides for an extensive information-gathering mechanism, which directly involves the security apparatus, among others10. Further, an application may be denied for security reasons (for instance, the applicant belonging to, or even sympathizing or having sympathized with, a banned or disfavored political group) without those reasons ever having to be clearly disclosed to the applicant. The collected information will remain confidential but will be recorded in the person's security file11 seriously hampering his or her ability to secure employment in the government.
If the high cost of dissent has led many teachers to choose between abandoning their profession and conforming to their expected role, each new generation of Iranians comes with teachers who stray from the official path and are seen as a threat. Today, thanks to the restraining power of fast-circulating information, political executions have decreased; instead, Iranian authorities frequently fire and imprison unwanted teachers. The fate of 17 Kurdish teachers recently fired from their teaching positions for their involvement in a koranic school (Maktab Qur'an) comes as no surprise nor does the justification provided orally by the Head of the Ministry of Education for the Kurdistan Province. The latter explained to protesting teachers that the above mentioned school is "neither accepted nor legal in the Islamic Republic Regime".12
In the ongoing persecution of teachers and educators, however, vulnerable members of ethnic or religious minorities remain at particular risk, as they are easy targets for a ruling elite that thrives on discrimination. These groups have often been singled out to serve as an example for others. The fact that they belong to ethnic minorities where armed and sometimes separatist movements have had support serves a dual purpose: to purge the teachers' body of unwanted elements, on one hand, and to terrorize the general ethnic populace, on the other. Whereas most of these teachers are prosecuted for crimes related to "national security," "public order," and "deviating public conscience," and condemned to long prison sentences, exile, and prohibited from exercising certain political and social rights, some are branded as terrorists, under the guise of which the government asks for and usually obtains the death penalty. Hence the need for Iranian civil society and the international community to remain vigilant and active to protect teachers from the worst.
A recent campaign launched by Iranian activists, "BeVoiceOfIranianTeachers," has as its goal raising awareness of the plight of teachers, prisoners of opinion, who are incarcerated in Iran or are facing the death penalty. To have maximum impact, in particular with regard to prisoners whose religious and ethnic origins make them vulnerable and disposable in the eyes of the Iranian rulers, their action needs visibility. The Boroumand Foundation lends its support to this campaign and to calls on the international community to express solidarity with imprisoned Iranian teachers and call for their release on the occasion of World Teachers Day and beyond.
1 See, for instance, http://www.facebook.com/BeVoiceOfIranianTeachers
5 See the Boroumand Foundation Newsletter, https://www.iranrights.org/english/newsletter-29.php
9 The Law on The Selection [gozinesh] of Teachers and Employees in Education and Development states, in Article 2, that "the general guidelines for the moral, belief and political selection [gozinesh]"of [applicants] is according to the following criteria:
- Belief in Islam or one of the official religions set out in the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran;
- Practical engagement in the laws of Islam;
- Belief and engagement in the Velayat-e Faqih [or Leadership by a religious jurisprudent]; the regime (nezam) of the Islamic Republic and the constitution;
- Absence of a reputation of moral corruption and a tendency towards sin; ...
- Absence of a record of an organizational membership or support of parties, organizations and groups declared illegal by the competent authorities; or the expression of repentance of this;