Arrests by Iran in Bid to Quell Wide Protests

CAIRO — In recent weeks, security officials have unleashed an epidemic of arrests across Iran in an effort to neutralize the political opposition, silence critical voices and head off widespread protests when the nation observes the anniversary of the revolution on Thursday, Iran analysts inside and outside the country said.

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Iranian security officers on motorcycles surrounded antigovernment protesters on foot during clashes in Tehran on Dec. 27.

Though the government has refrained from arresting the principal leaders of the opposition, the category of people it has pursued has grown broader over time.

While a number of well-known reformists were detained shortly after the contested presidential election last June, the ranks of those imprisoned now include artists, photographers, children’s rights advocates, women’s rights activists, students and scores of journalists. Iran now has more journalists in prison than any other country in the world, with at least 65 in custody, according to Reporters Without Borders.

Reports have filtered out from Iran of people being roused from their beds during midnight raids and disappearing into the penal system without an official word to family and friends, and of overcrowded jails and long stays in solitary confinement, according to human rights groups.

In what appeared to be a first, the Revolutionary Court summoned Tuesday the wife and children of an imprisoned journalist, Mohammad Nourizad, to appear as “political prisoners,” the official Web site of the opposition leader, Mir Hussein Moussavi, reported. This appeared to be connected to an open letter that Mr. Nourizad’s wife, Fatemeh Maleki, wrote recently to the people of Iran, said the site, called Kaleme.

Though the government does not report the numbers of those arrested, the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, a group based in New York, calculated that in the past two months at least 1,000 people have been imprisoned, many arrested under a blanket detention order issued in June that empowers the police to take anyone into custody for any reason.

“We don’t believe their detention has to do with any specific acts they have committed but for the ideas and ways of thinking they represent,” said Hadi Ghaemi, director of the human rights group. “By detaining them en masse, the government is spreading fear and intimidation, implementing a sort of a reign of terror, to dissuade potential protesters from coming out to the streets on Feb. 11.”

Iran experts say the security sweeps reveal a concerted effort by the leadership to transform the country into a more efficient police state while extending its crackdown from those involved in the protest and reform movements to anyone calling for change.

Lately, the authorities seem to have singled out two groups in particular: journalists, including political and cultural reporters and editors, and women’s rights activists, who have years of experience in organizing and maintaining a movement in the face of a hostile government.

Iran’s leadership says it is determined to maintain control of the streets on the anniversary of the revolution, one of the most emotionally charged days in the Iranian calendar. In this smoldering political conflict, the opposition and the government have both tried to claim the mantle of the true heir to the revolution. Iranian officials often rely on large crowds of people — many of them paid by the government, the opposition charges — to prove the government’s legitimacy, and on Thursday the streets are likely to be filled with the state’s supporters as well as its opponents.

The pace of arrests, which soared in the summer, picked up again at year’s end after tens of thousands of demonstrators filled the streets around the country during the national observance of Ashura, a religious day of mourning observed by Shiite Muslims. At least 10 people were killed when government forces opened fire on unarmed protesters. But in scenes circulated around the world on the Internet, protesters were seen fighting back, chasing after government gunmen, blocking roads and burning government vehicles.

With those images clearly in mind, the government has moved aggressively to try to prevent a repeat. Experts say the officials have reason to be nervous. Even without calls from the principal opposition leaders, enormous crowds filled the streets on Ashura. This time those leaders, Mr. Moussavi and Mehdi Karroubi, have both issued calls to people to pour into the streets.

“There are signs of an exceedingly nervous security apparatus that is deeply concerned about the outcome,” said Hamid Dabashi, professor of Iranian studies and comparative literature at Columbia University.

The government response has been to try to intimidate, Iran experts and opposition leaders said. That has included imposing the death penalty on 11 prisoners, and hanging two. Five more death penalty cases are currently being prosecuted.

In the most recent crackdown, the government has rounded up scores of journalists, and not just those of the opposition. Reporters working for the semiofficial news agencies Mehr and ISNA have also been detained. The list of those arrested is a virtual Who’s Who of Iranian journalism, among them: Akbar Montajabi, political editor of the newspaper Etemad-e Melli; Ahmad Jalali-Farahani, the social affairs editor of Mehr; and Zeinab Kazemkhah, an arts and culture writer for ISNA. Other journalists, like Ahmad Zeydabadi and Masoud Bastani, arrested shortly after the election, have been sentenced to long prison terms in secret court proceedings.

“The Islamic government thinks that by such tactics it will stifle all true information, all real reporting, and so will be able to flood the news with only what it wants,” said Hossein Ziai, the director of Iranian studies at the University of California, Los Angeles.

No opposition or rights group has escaped, including the Mourning Mothers, an organization founded by women whose children were killed by government agents in the protests that broke out after the election in June. Every Saturday, members of the group and their supporters sit quietly near the fountains in Laleh Park in Tehran. And every Saturday, they are chased down by the police, piled into the back of police vans and carted off to prison, according to witnesses.

“It shows how frightened they are of their own people, when they cannot tolerate mothers who are holding a silent vigil and want accountability,” Mr. Ghaemi said.

The opposition today is adopting a tactic that was pioneered by the women’s movement, a decentralization of power so that the campaign continues even if a leader is arrested. The political opposition’s apparent weakness, its failure to coalesce into an organized movement, has also made it virtually impossible to shut down, even in the face of widespread arrests.

“I am not sure what will happen on Thursday,” said Prof. Ali Ansari of the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. “Either way, it doesn’t look good for the authorities.”

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