Omid Rezai looks at the case of a jailed militant on hunger strike in Iran
Reza Shahabi, an Iranian labour activist, has been in held in Block 209 of Tehran’s notorious Evin jail, for months without conviction or even proper charge. Paying attention to the reality of his case shows that the situation for workers and working-class movements in Iran is different to that in Europe only in degree; bureaucratic and bourgeois-legalist excuses manufactured ad hoc to justify his continuing political incarceration, his alleged second trial remaining always just around a corner, since he was found to have no case to answer to on 25th May.
The authorities have attacked him still further. He has been subjected to aggression and intimidation, pressured to cut even his scheduled fortnightly telephone conversation with his family. In response, Reza began a hunger strike, demanding his immediate and unconditional release. Beginning on 1st November, his hunger strike led to the formation of a committee for his defence which attracted hundreds of signatories from across the Iranian labour movement. Mahmoud Salehi, himself recently released from jail, has become the spokesperson for the group. The authorities increased their attacks on Reza, at one point using his weaknesses as an excuse to stop him from talking to his family, telling them that he would not see them.
On the twenty-first day of his hunger strike Reza’s move began. When he was transferred to Block 305, Behram Ebrahimzadeh, another imprisoned labour activist began a hunger strike in solidarity with Reza’s. By now, Reza was very weak and both his supporters and jailers worried that his health would be damaged permanently, and that he would have to stand trial disabled, the prison authorities having claimed that a date had definitely fixed for his trial: sometime in January. As Reza’s condition worsened, trade unionists from all over the world sought to intervene through sending letters to Evin prison, demanding his immediate and unconditional release. Reza Shahabi’s name is already known internationally because of his role in organising the Vahed bus workers’ union, one of the first sparks of the increasing wave of strikes and militancy amongst the Iranian working class: so many of those who had supported him last time spoke up again for him again.
Unlike the case of Sakineh Ashtiani, a woman condemned to death for ‘adultery’ (see issue 19 of The Commune) his name barely appeared in the English language media. The difference between the cases is striking; whereas Ashtiani had been, legally, “legitimately” convicted, Shahabi had not. So Reza Shahabi, on hunger strike for unconditional and immediate release, a working-class activist with a network of support of militant Iranian workers, does not fit the imperialist narrative: its colonial ideology of human rights. His story does not sit easily with the usual story about the backwards patriarchy in Iran, and the need to supplant it with a modern, colonial-liberal one.
When his family visited Reza told them that it would make him proud to die for the worker’s movement. “We are the 99% of society”, he told them. “But wealth remains in the hands of 1%. We have to give from our lives at work, but can not even afford to take our children on a holiday for a few days. We can’t send them to schools to learn anything. I have fought for our rights, justice for workers. I will continue to do so to the end of my innocent life, standing on my demand; immediate and unconditional release. I do not want release on compassionate grounds. Nor do I want a pardon. I have not committed any crime for the punishment to be cancelled, and no accusation has been made for me to be pardoned from. They have taken half my life. I have to be vindicated and released unconditionally and immediately.”
Reza was ultimately taken to hospital. After thirty days and the promise of an immediate and unconditional release, Reza Shahabi stopped his hunger strike. Ten days later he, like Bahram Embrahimzadeh, Ali Nejati and countless other radical workers, is still in jail.
His defence committee have called for supporters to take all possible courses of action to secure his release.
For more info, contact the Defence Committee: firstname.lastname@example.org
International Alliance in Support of Workers in Iran: email@example.com
Coordinating Committee to help form Workers Organisations: http://khamahangy.com/English.htm