Middle East

Exiled Iranian activists on the election anniversary

On the first anniversary of Iran's disputed presidential elections, three former political prisoners who fled the country describe the drama of the last 12 months.

Arash Bahmani

Arash Bahmani was the editor of Gilan-e Behtar, a weekly newspaper published in northern Iran, and the head of a reformist alumni union in his home province of Gilan. He was forced to flee Iran after the elections.

Like many Iranians, I was politically active both in the run-up to, and after the elections and a warrant was issued for my arrest.

I previously spent two weeks in jail in 2006 while I was being investigated under the charge of insulting the Supreme Leader. So I already had an open dossier at the Revolutionary Court.

One of my friends had already been arrested. And the judge at the Revolutionary Court said he had issued me an eight-year prison sentence, on the previous charges. So after conferring with friends, fleeing Iran was considered as one option. I lived in hiding for a while before deciding to escape.

My main problem was not knowing who to trust to take me across the border. In the end, an opposition group helped me cross the mountainous border between Iran and Iraq, through the Iranian Kurdistan province.

Search lights

It was a tough journey, hiking across mountains in snow and ice and mud in the freezing cold for hours on end. I had to hide every time I saw the border guards on patrol.

Once inside Iraqi Kurdistan, I was able to travel a part of the distance by car. But as I had entered Iraq without any official papers and was apprehensive of the many police stop-and-search posts set up on the roads in the border area, I had to travel a long distance on foot - in the more mountainous areas and away from the roads.

On one occasion at night, and near a police post, the police dogs started barking in our direction and the police redirected their search lights towards us. We were forced to remain immobile and on the ground for 45 minutes, all covered in mud.

If I had been arrested without travel documents in Iraq, I would have been facing six months in prison before being extradited. But the smugglers who took me across the border also managed to arrange temporary leave to remain.

My main problem was money. When I was preparing to flee Iran, I was told to bring only my laptop, some cash and the clothes I was wearing. So after a few days my money was running short and I could not receive money transfers from Iran, as I had no valid travel documents on me and no local bank account.

Another important issue was that Iraqi Kurdistan was the first stop on a longer journey. I was not able to stay there indefinitely. After a while I heard that the French consulate in Irbil was accepting applications for political exile from Iranians and I applied there. I was told after two weeks that my application would be accepted, but it took nearly two months for the documents and paperwork to arrive.

At the moment, I am living in a small room on the outskirts of Paris and dream about returning to Iran. I have spoken to some older exiles and they all have the same feeling. One man told me that even 25 years after he went into exile from Iran, he has a suitcase packed and ready to go home. We all wish for that day to come.

Ali Kantouri

Ali Kantouri was born in 1981. He was a leftist student who fled Iran after receiving a 15 year prison sentence from the Iranian Revolutionary Court.

I was arrested in the winter of 2007 and spent five months in Qezel Hessar Prison, before I was released on bail.

I finally received a court summons in spring 2009 and attended my first hearing on 10 June - just two days before the presidential elections.

They wanted to keep me in a state of limbo. A week before my court hearing, my brother Abolfazl was arrested and the authorities told my family that they would not release him until I showed up in court.

I finally realised that I had no choice but to go into hiding. My friends had told me that, under the present conditions in Iran, being sent to prison would not bring an end to the issue and I would not be safe there.

So, even though I believe that a political activist must be able to withstand prison and rough treatment, I decided within a few hours that the best option for me would be to flee Iran.

'They opened fire'

I left Iran in March 2010 through the north-western border. On the second night, while still in the border area, the border guards opened fire in my direction. But luckily I escaped unharmed.

On another occasion I was forced to run fast for a distance. I sustained a slight injury to one foot. But again, it was not a problem I couldn't live with.

My main problem was the cold and the bitter weather conditions. I did not know that the weather could be so cold and the snowfall so heavy.

In some places I would see canine footprints and was unsure whether they were from dogs or wolves. It took me a long week to be able to cross the border safely into Turkey.

People who are forced to flee Iran in conditions similar to mine are not aware of, or ready for, the pitfalls and dangers of such border crossings.

I use my extra time to improve my Turkish and if I can access the internet I will try to follow the news and events back home. This is the extent of my life at the moment.

Arash Ghafouri

During the 2009 presidential elections, Arash Ghafouri was involved in public relations for Mir Hossein Mousavi, the reformist Iranian candidate. He was forced to flee his homeland soon afterwards.

Very few of us activists who were campaigning for the reformist candidates in the presidential elections last year would have believed our futures would turn out like this.

Although on one occasion, when we created the human chain linking supporters of Mir Hossein Mousavi from the south of Tehran right up to the north, we did joke that the members of the chain would soon have to seek out refuge in some far flung mountains or deserts.

We took the issue lightly, as a joke, and little did we know that after the elections our real fate would be either prison or exile.

In the last week running up to election day, I barely slept a few hours each night as there was so much campaigning to do. I thought that I could make up for lost sleep after we had won the elections.

The mass demonstrations that followed the "results" and my successful escape from the Intelligence Ministry agents who had wanted to arrest me, I had to go into hiding. And during those first three months hiding in Iran, I had a lot of opportunity to rest and do little else.

Guilty burden

I managed to escape to Turkey where I spent the next six months. I felt lucky. But I was also overwhelmed with the guilt of being free, while back in Iran my friends and associates were locked up behind bars back home and being paraded in show trials at the Revolutionary Court.

Finally, I was able to make my way to the United States. I arrived here after almost a decade of work in the reformist media in Iran. I had been a proud member of the Mosharekat Front [a reformist political party] back home and I now feel the burden of events on my back.

On the one hand, there was a coup d'etat by the hard-liners against the majority vote back home. And on the other, we organise a so-called nationalist opposition abroad, whose "struggle" consists of pulling Iranian flags down from diplomatic premises in Europe, while writing to the Americans apologising for past anti-US sentiment.

On the anniversary of election day, I would much rather that I was able to walk down the streets of Tehran in protest against the government, rather than just swear and curse as do some members of the "opposition" abroad. But this is not the case.

Last year I could never have believed that I would spend this day in America, rather than celebrating the first anniversary of the election of Mir Hossein Mousavi as president with my colleagues and friends in Iran. This though, has been my fate.