by Mei Leng Yew
A fortnight ago, Palatinate revealed that Ehsan Abdoh-Tabrizi, a PhD student at the University had been sentenced to 7 years in prison, after spending a year imprisoned without trial in Iran.
Since Ehsan’s arrest in mid-January 2010, the University has been accused of complacency in their response, and of attempting to prevent both The Guardian and ITV News from publicising Ehsan’s situation.
The University has been placed under a critical media spotlight, as the response to Ehsan’s imprisonment had until then been limited to private correspondence with the Iranian embassy in London. While staff at the University of Essex, where Ehsan completed his MA, drew up a petition calling for his release, their counterparts in Durham were told that they could only sign such a petition in a personal capacity, without University endorsement.
When a group of concerned supporters formed the Campaign to Free Ehsan (CFE) and circulate an online petition to all University staff, only a handful signed.
Since the increase of media interest in Ehsan’s plight, there has been a U-turn in the University’s strategy of response.
In a statement last August, Pro-Vice-Chancellor Anthony Forster explained the University’s silence hitherto: “Following discussions with Ehsan’s father, the University agreed that it would not seek publicity as there was no indication that this would help Ehsan’s case. The University was assured by Ehsan’s father on a number of occasions that its position of official but discrete engagement with the Embassy was the right course of action”.
The CFE were responsible for bringing the media’s attention to Ehsan and they are now looking to co-ordinate with the DSU and gain support from the University’s student community.
This began last week in the form of an emergency debate at the Durham Union Society. Afshin Shahi, an Iranian doctoral student in Durham who is involved with the CFE, argued in favour of the motion “This House believes that Durham University should actively campaign for the release of Ehsan Abdoh-Tabrizi”.
Since publically acknowledging Ehsan’s arrest, the University has sent an open letter to Mr Movahedian, the Ambassador of London’s Iranian Embassy, asking him “to exert whatever influence [he] can to ensure [Ehsan’s] case is resolved as soon as possible”. They received no response and another open letter was sent to the Supreme Leader of Iran.
Raising concerns that Ehsan was “not being treated in accordance with basic principles of justice”, the University again asked for the case to be “settled as quickly and as fairly as possible”. There was no reply.
Finally, the University sent a third letter, addressed to Ayatollah Sadegh Larijani, Head of the Judiciary in Iran. It requested confirmation that Ehsan’s “case may be brought to trial in the near future”.
On New Year’s Day this year, Ehsan was sentenced to a two year prison term for insulting the president, followed by three years for assembly and conspiracy against the regime and a final two years for collaborating with foreign agents.
Ehsan believes that the foundation for his arrest can be traced to his presence at a street protest on 27th Dec 2009. The anti-government protests were held after hardline leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was re-elected for a second term in a poll marred by allegations of fraud.
The CFE believe that Ehsan is also a victim of phone-tapping, as opinions expressed during private conversations are being used against him. It is also possible that Ehsan was targeted because his father, Hossein, the manager of the banned reformist newspaper Sarmayeh, had previously been an outspoken critic of President Ahmadinejad.
Ehsan’s family have now lodged a notice to appeal. However, Afshin has pointed out that there is no way of knowing when or if he will be given an appeal date.
Over the past year, Ehsan has been physically tortured and gone on hunger-strike, consequently losing 20 kg in weight.
Afshin added, “The appeal would be Ehsan’s last chance. That’s why we have to work together to make a civilised national campaign. Over the last few months, the University has changed their policy in regards to Ehsan and we are extremely happy about that. We hope now to systemise our campaign and synchronise our action with the wider University authorities”.
Alice Thubron, President of the The Durham University Amnesty International Society, described Ehsan’s imprisonment as “a stark reminder of the human rights crisis in Iran. Peaceful [people] exercising their rights to freedom of expression and association are targeted by the Iranian authorities”.
With Durham’s student population rallying behind Ehsan, the University has once again altered its policy. Following a review on 1st Feb, Prof Forster said, “The University has agreed with Ehsan’s family to do what we can to support any efforts to ensure Ehsan is not forgotten.
The family believes that Ehsan’s friends and fellow students in Durham can also play an important role in keeping the case in the public consciousness”.