A Visit with Mahdi Karroubi Iranian Opposition Leader Defiant Despite Government Crackdown

Almost a year after the apparently manipulated Iranian presidential election, the regime has largely succeeded in silencing the opposition. Leading reformist cleric Mahdi Karroubi remains undaunted, however. Despite having lost almost everything, he continues in his criticism of the government and has now announced new protests.


By in Tehran

They have taken almost everything Iranian opposition leader Mahdi Karroubi has. In a bid to neutralize him, they have banned his Etemad-e Melli party (National Confidence Party), closed his newspaper of the same name and arrested 50 of his associates and confidants.

They have not even shied away from taking harsh action against his three sons. Hossein, 44, has seen his passport revoked, which is often the last step before an indictment. Taghi, 42, who was seriously wounded in the war against former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, was prevented from leaving the country for medical treatment in London. And his youngest son Ali, 37, was detained, interrogated and severely beaten.

It appears to be only a matter of time before the 72-year-old Karroubi himself is targeted. Rocks have already been thrown through the windows of his house and death threats smeared on the walls. When the cleric was traveling in a rural area early this year, unknown assailants shot at him, and it was a stroke of luck that he wasn't hit.

Nevertheless, the religious scholar remains undaunted. He greets his visitors with a broad smile and makes fun of his most dangerous opponent, the "highly esteemed Dr. Ahmadinejad." He would never refer to the bigoted leader as Iran's president. According to Karroubi, "this man is a disaster for the people" and must be fought, "without violence, but with all of our strength."

Still Defiant

It's shortly before midnight, and in his house in Nurian Street in northern Tehran, Karroubi, probably Iran's most courageous man, is still wide awake. His eyes flash behind his rimless glasses, and his feet, which he has propped up on a small stool, are twitching with tension. Whether he is raising his index finger in a show of outrage or slamming his fist onto the arm of his old wooden chair, each of his gestures shows that Karroubi, almost a year after his defeat in the fight for the presidency, still hasn't given up the fight.

Three men had entered the race for the June 12, 2009 presidential election, determined to prevent the reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad: Karroubi, former Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi, 68, and Mohsen Rezai, 55, the former long-time head of Iran's feared Revolutionary Guard, the Pasdaran. Karroubi and Mousavi represented the reformist camp, while Rezai was the candidate of the pragmatic conservatives. All three refused to accept the official election result, which declared Ahmadinejad the winner with more than 60 percent of the vote.

Rezai quickly withdrew his protest after the virtually omnipotent revolutionary leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, had declared the election legitimate. But Karroubi and the presumed real winner, Mousavi, rose to become the people's leaders. Three days after the election, they had already managed to mobilize 3 million supporters. "Where is my vote?" the reform supporters chanted in the streets of Tehran. The regime responded with brutal violence.

The death toll in the so-called Green Rebellion was high. According to the Iranian League for the Defense of Human Rights, there were more than 100 "verifiable deaths" among the protestors. At least 2,000 opposition supporters were arrested, a number of whom have since been released on parole.

The Changing Face of Torture

But since the demonstrations on the 31st anniversary of the Iranian revolution in February, which were dominated by Ahmadinejad's supporters rather than the opposition, it has been deathly quiet in Tehran. The mood among regime critics in the Iranian capital is almost reminiscent of the mood in Baghdad during the regime of Saddam Hussein. Iraq was once referred to as a "republic of fear." The Iraqi dictator had spies everywhere, and critics were severely punished. Sources in Tehran now say that Ahmadinejad also no longer tolerates the slightest opposition, and the prisons are said to be as full of political prisoners today as they were in the days of the 1979 revolution.

Despite all threats, Karroubi, in a conversation with SPIEGEL, says that he stands by his assertion, which the regime has sharply denied, that arrested protestors have been tortured to death. He says that he is aware of four cases. He also refuses to retract his claim that prisoners were raped and claims to be familiar with five cases, including those of two young men.

Even a harsh critic of the regime like Karroubi does not agree with the statement that the human rights violations are becoming as extensive as they were during the days of the shah. But he also points out, with a sarcastic smile, that at least the shah's torturers were "experts" who knew who they were harming and why. But nowadays, says Karroubi, the violence in the prisons is "purely arbitrary." Although he says he doesn't accept Ahmadinejad as president, Karroubi does demand that he be "held accountable for what is happening."


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