Ahmad Batebi was doomed and made famous because of a bloody white T-shirt he held aloft during student protests against Iran’s religious dictatorship in 1999. Another student had been shot beside him. Batebi took off the wounded man’s shirt to stem the bleeding and carried him to safety. He then returned to the crowd and brandished the garment—a gesture somewhere between defiance and a warning to his fellow protesters. The image was captured on film, and a photograph of Batebi—his longish hair held back with a bandana, dark stubble on his handsome face, the T-shirt above his head—ran on the cover of The Economist. He instantly became an icon of Iran’s student democracy movement.
Batebi had already been detained for his role in the protests when the photograph was published. A judge hearing the case showed him the magazine cover and said: “With this you have signed your death warrant.” He was condemned to death for “creating street unrest,” but his sentence was commuted to 15 years and then reduced to 10. He endured solitary confinement and torture. He was beaten with cables, held face down in a pool of sewage, kicked, cut, and hung from the ceiling. Twice he suffered mock executions. His jailers wanted him to confess, betray his fellow students, say the blood on the T-shirt was merely paint. He says he refused.
I met Batebi in a modest suburban Tehran house one night in April 2004 when I was in Iran to secretly meet with Iranian dissidents. He had secured a day pass from the infamous Evin Prison. We sat on the living room floor, as the mostly young Iranians talked about the kind of future they wanted for their country. The parents of one were also there. The father said he had supported the Islamic revolution 25 years ago because he believed it would free Iranians, but had not imagined the horrors it would bring.
Batebi entered the room only briefly. He asked that I not write about seeing him then. He was afraid of jeopardizing the sporadic hours of freedom he enjoyed, and didn’t want to endanger others. But it is safe to write about Batebi now. In March, temporarily released for medical attention, he escaped to Iraq. A few months later Batebi arrived in the U.S., where he now faces a brighter, if uncertain future. In a Voice of America radio interview, he said he wished that every Iranian could travel to the U.S. or Europe for just one week to “breathe freedom, human dignity, and realize the value of their lives.”
The fortunes of the other Iranian democrats who risked so much to meet with a Canadian journalist that night four years ago have been mixed. Two are still in Iran and have been in and out of prison. Kianoosh Sanjari, another student, was arrested and jailed several times, usually because of reports he wrote on an online blog. He was eventually forced to flee Iran to Iraq and is now in exile in Norway, from where he continues his online activism.
Behrouz Javid Tehrani, who was arrested during the same protests as Batebi, has spent most of the past decade in prison. He recently wrote a letter detailing a stint in solitary confinement, which he earned after confronting a prison warden to ask why he had not been given a day pass to attend a memorial service for his mother, who had died while he was in jail. Before he was taken to the solitary wing, Tehrani demanded to tell the other prisoners what was happening to him. The guards beat him with batons while he shouted “long live freedom” and “down with religious dictatorship” before losing consciousness. The solitary wing has a common room, so Tehrani was not completely isolated. He witnessed more than 20 suicide attempts: prisoners cut their wrists, tried to hang themselves, or swallowed razors. There are cameras and microphones in every cell, so suicide attempts are usually not successful.
Tehrani also writes about an old inmate, nicknamed Reza Penguin because of the way he walked, who tried to lift the others’ spirits. One day the inmates fashioned makeshift musical instruments. Reza Penguin danced in the centre of the room until the guards mocked him as a female dancer and broke his hand in three places. The musicians were beaten, doused with water, and then shocked with electric batons while other guards laughed. “I don’t understand what kind of pleasure they could get out of this situation,” Tehrani writes. “The guards who beat me, how could they get pleasure out of that? Maybe they need to see a psychiatrist.”
It is probable that Tehrani will suffer as a result of his letter, posted on the Internet. He likely knows this, and likely doesn’t care. Tehrani could have disavowed his beliefs, or at least kept quiet about them. If he had chosen this path, he might not be in jail now. But as a democrat living in a dictatorship, he also would not consider himself free. “Generally it is a tradition among prisoners that whoever does not yell or scream during a beating is the strongest,” Tehrani writes. “However, I screamed as much as I could. Why should I hide the pain of torture behind silence?”
Batebi, safely in America, has also chosen not to be silent. On his Farsi-language blog, he posted a photo of himself in front of the Capitol in Washington with the message: “Your hands will never touch me again.”