News / Middle East

Ill and Long Isolated, Iranian Opposition Leaders Smell Freedom

FILE - Iranian opposition leader Mirhossein Mousavi (L) meets with pro-reform cleric Mehdi Karoubi in Tehran, Oct. 12, 2009.
FILE - Iranian opposition leader Mirhossein Mousavi (L) meets with pro-reform cleric Mehdi Karoubi in Tehran, Oct. 12, 2009.
Reuters
Four months after President Hassan Rouhani's election, Iran is reviewing the house arrest of two opposition leaders, but conservatives may fear the consequences of freeing men who remain heroes to many Iranians.

Mirhossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karoubi, candidates who led the “Green Movement” that disputed the 2009 re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, have never been charged with any crime. Yet both men, former top officials now in their 70s and in ill health, have been held under tight surveillance since early 2011.

But now, as Iran seems keen to heal old conflicts both at home and with the West, their living conditions have been eased and their case referred to a powerful state security council.

To some, this shows Iran's most powerful figure, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, wants to resolve the issue - although so far the council has had no contact with either opposition leader or their families.

Under Ahmadinejad's hardline presidency, they were denounced as “seditionists” and accused of helping Iran's enemies to undermine the Islamic theocracy. Doors and windows of the house where Mousavi is held were welded shut, and both were allowed little contact with their families.

But since Rouhani's election, they now enjoy weekly visits from their families. Relations with security guards have softened and access to specialist medical treatment improved.

“The political situation has completely changed since Mr. Rouhani came to power and in some aspects the confinement of my father is absolutely better than before,” said one of Karoubi's sons, Mohammad Taghi who lives in Britain. “But this confinement according to Iranian law is completely illegal. No doubt about it.”

Under Rouhani the atmosphere is very different both in Iran's troubled relations with the outside world and at home.

Tehran has hinted at a possible readiness to scale back nuclear work - which it says is peaceful but the West fears is aimed at developing weapons - in exchange for relief from trade and financial sanctions which are crippling the Iranian economy.

No guarantee of release

In Iran, dozens of political prisoners have been pardoned and Rouhani seems intent on reversing the social and political restrictions imposed during Ahmadinejad's two terms in office.

But the case of a Mousavi, who was prime minister for much of the 1980s, and Karoubi, a former speaker of parliament, is complex. Four years ago, huge crowds protested against an Ahmadinejad victory which they believed was rigged.

Security forces put down the movement and in 2011 the two opposition leaders lost their freedom after calling for a rally in support of protests that were sweeping the Arab world.

Earlier this month, Minister of Justice Mostafa Pour Mohammadi announced their cases were being re-examined by the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC).

This body, which is responsible for setting defense and security policy, has undergone a reshuffle reflecting the changed times in Tehran.

Both men's health problems will worry the clerical leadership, as any significant deterioration while they remain detained would arouse fury among their supporters. Nevertheless, this does not guarantee their release.

“The authorities simply don't know what the reaction would be. Mousavi and Karoubi are lionized figures and their hero status will go through the roof. The right-wing camp still has serious misgivings,” said Siavush Randjbar-Daemi, an Iran expert at Britain's University of Manchester.

Security agencies are likely to fear their release would provoke huge rallies in their support and disrupt Iran's new political chapter under Rouhani. Above all, supreme leader  Khamenei is almost certainly intent on ensuring there is no repeat of the unrest in 2009 that eroded his authority and threatened the very existence of the Islamic Republic.

Improved conditions

Mehdi Karoubi, 76, is being held in a house in northern Tehran. He is now visited by his wife Fatemeh, two of his children and his grandchildren every Wednesday for several hours. During the visits, just one security guard is present in the room and the family can talk in relative privacy.

Before the election families of both men went for months without any contact. “We were so worried. No one knew what was going on,” Mohammad Taghi Karoubi said. During some visits up to eight guards were present and family members were not allowed any private contact. Any breach of the rules was punished by further visits being postponed.

Karoubi keeps himself busy reading books his wife is allowed to bring and two newspapers he is given. He also spends time writing his diary.

He has suffered serious back pain for the last two months and has trouble walking. After making a request, a doctor chosen by the family was allowed to treat him at the house. “It's a change. It took four to five weeks but at the end of the day, they let the doctor come,” said Mohammad Taghi.

In late July Karoubi senior was admitted to Tehran Heart Center where he was treated for a blocked coronary artery.

Early that month, 71-year-old Mousavi was also taken to the same hospital twice in 24 hours suffering from rapidly fluctuating blood pressure.

Security guards escorted Mousavi, who suffered heart problems in mid 2012, to the hospital with his wife Zahra Rahnavard but refused to let him be formally admitted.

Mousavi suffers from stomach, heart and leg problems. His health and well being is “at the mercy of security forces,” Ardeshir Amir Arjomand an adviser to Mousavi, said from France.

“There is a certain amount of medical treatment but the family is still very concerned because the situation requires regular treatment in a calm atmosphere, without stress and by a doctor which the family trusts,” said Arjomand.

Mousavi and his wife now also have weekly visits from their daughters. “These are positive signs. We have new hope for the future,” said Arjomand, referring to the referral of the case to the SNSC. “But there has been no judiciary procedure and their confinement amounts to an illegal imprisonment.”

A political challenge

The SNSC comes under the presidency, giving Rouhani some influence over any decision on the two men's fate. Saeed Jalili, a hardline war veteran, was removed as its secretary in the reshuffle which installed several of Rouhani's most important Cabinet members.

“The Council's new head, Ali Shamkhani, is someone who has a track record of going against the tide and being a frank and rational security official. It's a very different outlook to the Jalili period,” said Randjbar-Daemi at Manchester university.

However, Khamenei also appoints a number of important SNSC members, including the chiefs of the armed forces and  Revolutionary Guards. These men are likely to avoid any decision to release if they fear this would lead to mass rallies. In any case, Khamenei must approve any decision the SNSC makes.

The two opposition leaders' isolation has now lasted for more than 950 days and it appears that neither will promise to remain silent in return for their liberty.

“Such a condition is totally and utterly unacceptable,” said Mohammad Taghi Karoubi. “During the last family visit, my father made it clear. He said, 'If I am a free man I will use all my rights as a free man. I will talk to my people, express my thanks and talk about the issues that people expect politicians to talk about. This is my job.'”

You May Like

US, Brazil's Climate-Change Plan: More Renewables, Less Deforestation

Officials say joint initiative on climate change will allow Brazil, United States to strengthen and accelerate cooperation on issues ranging from land use to clean energy More

Video Blind Somali Journalist Defies Odds in Mogadishu

Reporting from Somali capital for past decade, Abdifatah Hassan Kalgacal has been working at one of Mogadishu's leading radio stations covering parliament More

After Nearly a Century, Voodoo Opera Rises Again

Opera centers on character named Lolo, a Louisiana plantation worker and Voodoo priestess More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Blind Somali Journalist Defies Odds in Mogadishui
X
Abdulaziz Billow
June 30, 2015 2:16 PM
Despite improving security in the last few years, Somalia remains one of the most dangerous countries to be a journalist – even more so for someone who cannot see. Abdulaziz Billow has the story of journalist Abdifatah Hassan Kalgacal, who has been reporting from the Somali capital for the last decade despite being blind.
Video

Video Blind Somali Journalist Defies Odds in Mogadishu

Despite improving security in the last few years, Somalia remains one of the most dangerous countries to be a journalist – even more so for someone who cannot see. Abdulaziz Billow has the story of journalist Abdifatah Hassan Kalgacal, who has been reporting from the Somali capital for the last decade despite being blind.
Video

Video Texas Defies Same-Sex Marriage Ruling

Texas state officials have criticized the US Supreme Court decision giving same-sex couples the right to marry nationwide. The attorney general of Texas says last week's decision did not overrule constitutional "rights of religious liberty," and therefore officials performing wedding services can refuse to perform them for same-sex couples if it is against their religious beliefs. Zlatica Hoke reports on the controversy.
Video

Video US Gay Marriage Ruling Yields Real-life Impact

Friday’s landmark Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage throughout the United States is an outcome few thought possible just years ago, and shows a nation that increasingly tolerates and even celebrates the hopes and aspirations of gay people. VOA’s Michael Bowman spoke to a same-sex couple that will benefit from the high court ruling, and to a Christian scholar who is apprehensive about its potential consequences for America’s faith community.
Video

Video Syrians Flee IS Advance in Hasaka

The Syrian government said Monday it has taken back one of several districts in Hasaka overrun by Islamic State militants. But continued fighting elsewhere in the northern city has forced thousands of civilians from their homes. In this report narrated by Bill Rodgers, VOA Kurdish Service reporter Zana Omer describes the scene in Amouda, where some of the displaced are taking refuge.
Video

Video Rabbi Hits Road to Heal Jewish-Muslim Relations in France

France is on high alert after last week's terrorist attack near the city Lyon, just six months after deadly Paris shootings. The attack have added new tensions to relations between French Jews and Muslims. France’s Jewish and Muslim communities also share a common heritage, though, and as far as one French rabbi is concerned, they are destined to be friends. From the Paris suburb of La Courneuve, Lisa Bryant reports about Rabbi Michel Serfaty and his friendship bus.
Video

Video S. Korea Christians Protest Gay Rights Festival

The U.S. Supreme Court decision mandating marriage equality nationwide has energized gay rights supporters around the world. Gay rights remain a highly contentious issue in a key U.S. ally, South Korea, where police did a deft job Sunday of preventing potential clashes between Christian protesters and gay activists. Kurt Achin reports from Seoul.
Video

Video Saudi Leaks Expose ‘Checkbook Diplomacy’ In Battle With Iran

Saudi Arabia’s willingness to wield its oil money on the global diplomatic stage appears to have been laid bare, after the website WikiLeaks published tens of thousands of leaked cables from Riyadh’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Nubians in Kenya Face Land Challenges

East Africa's ethnic Nubians have a rich cultural history that dates back thousands of years, but in Kenya they are facing hardships, including the loss of lands they have lived on for generations. They say the government has reneged on its pledge to award them title deeds for the plots. VOA's Lenny Ruvaga reports.
Video

Video Syrian Refugees Return to Tal Abyad

Syrian refugees in Turkey confirm they left their hometown of Tal Abyad because of intense fighting and coalition airstrikes, not because Kurdish fighters were engaged in ethnic cleansing, as some Turkish officials charged. VOA Kurdish Service reporter Zana Omer, in Tal Abyad, finds that civilians coming back to the town agree, as we hear in this report narrated by Roger Wilkison.
Video

Video Military Experts Question New Russian Tank Capabilities

Russia has been showing off its new tank design – the Armata T-14. Designers claim it is 20 years ahead of current Western designs - and driving it feels like playing a computer game. But military analysts question those assertions, and warn the cost could be too heavy a burden for Russia’s struggling economy. Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video In Kenya, Police Said to Shoot First, Ask Questions Later

An organization that documents torture and extrajudicial killings says Kenyan police were responsible for 1,252 shooting deaths in five cities, including Nairobi, between 2009 and 2014, representing 67 percent of all gun deaths in the areas reviewed. Gabe Joselow has more from Nairobi.
Video

Video In Syrian Crisis, Social Media Offer Small Comforts

Za’atari, a makeshift city in Jordan, may be the only Syrian refugee camp to tweet its activities, in an effort to keep donors motivated as the war in Syria intensifies and the humanitarian crisis deepens. Inside the camp, families say mobile phone applications help hold together families that are physically torn apart. VOA’s Heather Murdock reports.

VOA Blogs