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Iran's 2009 Crackdown Resonates With Exiles


Iran is preparing for a presidential election, set for June. That election will determine who will succeed hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The last election, in 2009, was followed by massive protests after Ahmadinejad was declared the winner. The government cracked down, and thousands of Iranians fled into exile.

NPR's Peter Kenyon met with many of them in neighboring Turkey. He found memories of the crackdown still fresh, and little hope that things will improve with the next election.


PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Eskesehir is a city in central Turkey with a bustling university, modern tramway and industrial suburbs. It was never meant to be a home for Iranian exiles. They were relocated here in 2011, however, when the southeastern city of Van was devastated by an earthquake. Nearly four years after the election that spawned the Green Movement, memories of the astonishing breadth of the Iranian uprising, and the regime's subsequent brutality, still resonate among young Iranians here.

Twenty-seven-year-old architecture student Saeid Vafa used to take a four-hour bus ride from his hometown, to be part of the street protests in Tehran. One day, he returned home to find the police waiting for him, and although they interrogated him harshly, it seemed there wasn't much they didn't already know.

SAEID VAFA: (Through translator) And I found - when they arrested me, I found that they were following me for four years. And they printed all of my SMS, everything off my - even personal life. They talk about this, and it's a kind of shame, you know?

KENYON: Hamid Mafi, a relatively well-known Iranian journalist, says he was spared the worst physical torture during his imprisonment. But he found the psychological stress almost unbearable - bright lights and endless noise, to keep him from sleeping; and interrogations that featured threats to his family or anyone he had called, or texted, with his cellphone.

HAMID MAFI: (Through translator) They try to destroy your marriage. They say what kind of relationship you have - you have a sexual relationship with this person. You - they really try to destroy your personal life and - trying to break your self-respect. This is their method.

KENYON: Mafi predicts that the only candidates who will be allowed to run this year will be those who publicly reject the Green Movement and its allies.

MAFI: (Through translator) Because they have said, repeatedly, that any reformist who wants to enter the election has to announce his position on the dissidents and the Green Movement - has to denounce them and apologize, and - getting the election.

KENYON: Another student activist, Alireza Mousavi, says the older students have largely lost touch with what's happening on Iranian campuses nowadays, in part because the universities have been utterly transformed by the regime.

ALIREZA MOUSAVI: (Through translator) I mean, before, university was kind of a happy place. But now, everybody just - it's just a school. It's just something that you have to do - to get your degree, to finish it.

KENYON: Human Rights Watch issued a report on Iranian exiles last month. Researcher Faraz Sanei says with massive refugee flows pouring out of Syria, there hasn't been much attention paid to the smaller but continuing stream of Iranians leaving the country. He says it's often the most experienced opposition organizers who are targeted by the regime.

FARAZ SANEI: Which has caused a lot of worry for human rights activists because these are kind of the cream of the crop, in Iran. And we're seeing a lot of them come to the conclusion that it is no longer possible for them to stay in the country and continue their activities.

KENYON: Exiled activist Alireza Mousavi argues that international indifference is another factor. He says Iranians like himself, who risked their lives for political change, felt abandoned by the rest of the world. And they see no sign of that attitude changing now.

MOUSAVI: (Through translator) Because they did what they could, but nobody came to their support. And this support is getting less and less, by each passing year, which is strange because Iranians are - in a very problematic region, Iranians are the most pro-West and pro-democracy nation there is.

KENYON: Mousavi and other exiles are convinced the Iranian public will again rise up in favor of more freedom, and more of a say in how they're governed. But with leading reformist candidates in jail or under house arrest, and the political arena dominated by a power struggle among conservatives, they're not expecting it to happen this year.

KENYON: Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.