President Hassan Rouhani and other senior government officials were met with students expressing frustration over the continuing repression in Iran and demanding for the release of political prisoners, at a ceremony marking Students Day (December 7) in Iran. Notably, many of the students explicitly called for the end of house arrests of Green Movement opposition leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi, Zahra Rahnavard, and Mehdi Karroubi.
“Today, not only is the issue of house arrests still unresolved, but also [former President] Seyed Mohammad Khatami, one of your most important supporters, is banned from appearing in the media. Are these consistent with your campaign promises?” asked Khashayar Pourtaheri, Secretary of Sharif University’s Islamic Students Association, in remarks addressed to President Rouhani. “Mr. Rouhani! For how long will you go on making ambiguous and sarcastic statements? How much more time do you need to carry out your promises?”
Hedieh Zahed, a student body representative, asked Rouhani in her speech if he was “aware of the cold [repressive] atmosphere surrounding universities” and if he knew that “students are harassed and humiliated for taking part in political and cultural activities in universities.”
Rouhani responded that he felt the prevailing atmosphere at campuses, compared to before his election, was much more open, but he conceded that security at universities was too tight. “I feel the university atmosphere has changed since 2013. It’s like night and day,” Rouhani said during hisspeech at Tehran University. “The atmosphere might still be security-oriented and I don’t like that. We want to feel secure but not under security.”
Rouhani added that the country’s officials must come under public scrutiny or else they would become authoritarian. “Some institutions might find it hard to accept criticism. Let’s start with criticizing the government for now,” he said.
Yet criticism of government officials, and especially of Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Khomeini, comes at a high cost. Indeed the angry speeches and slogans at the Students Day event were partly sparked by the recent wave of arrests carried out by the Revolutionary Guards Intelligence Organization against journalists, reformists, poets, and artists. Last month four journalists, including the prominent reformist journalist Issa Saharkhiz, were among the latest detainees, while many other peaceful activists, such as Bahareh Hedayat, Narges Mohammadi, Atena Faraghdani, and Atena Daemi are still behind bars in Iran.
The mainstream media in Iran avoids bringing up the Green Movement, which arose after the Iran’s 2009 presidential election. The results of that election were widely disputed and public protests were met with a violent state crackdown. Those events are still referred to as the “Sedition” by the authorities. Mousavi and Karroubi, who were presidential candidates in that election, contested the validity of the vote count, which led to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s victory. Mousavi, Mousavi’s wife Rahnavard, and Karroubi have been prisoners inside their homes in Tehran since February 2011.
Most of the slogans at the Students Day event were a reminder that those wounds have not healed. The students shouted, “The Green Movement is not dead!” “Rouhani! End the house arrests!” and “Rouhani! Don’t forget Mousavi.” Hardline students in the audience shouted back with “Death to provocateurs” and security guards removed posters of reformist politician Mohammad Khatami.
President Rouhani has rarely talked about the house arrests but during his presidential campaign at a gathering at Sharif University in May 2013, he expressed hope that within a year conditions would become favorable to end the house arrests as well as the imprisonment of all those involved in the 2009 protests.
The official Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) reported that another Students Day gathering organized at Allameh Tabatabaee University’s College of Law and Political Science) was cancelled when clashes broke out during student speeches in an open microphone hour. Pepper spray was subsequently used at the event, but no one took responsibility for the action, the report added.
At Shahid Beheshti University, the reformist former Member of Parliament Mohammad Reza Khatami told a student gathering that today’s slogans for freedom shouted at universities proves that the aspirations of the Green Movement are still alive.
“Today some want to spread lies through the media. They not only refuse to give the other side the chance to respond but they put innocent people in jail. But most people cannot be fooled,” the Iranian Student News Agency (ISNA) quoted him as saying.
At the same gathering, Tehran Member of Parliament Ali Motahhari replied to a question posed by a student about the house arrests of Mousavi, Rahnavard and Karroubi, by describing it as a problem that could grow into a “cancerous tumor.”
“We can resolve the issue of the house arrests with civil protests, not just by students on Students Day, but all sectors should get involved. I believe that even senior religious figures have a responsibility to act if they believe the house arrests are unjust,” Motahhari said.