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Broken by prison, for a cause all but lost

He's been out for months now, but it is never very far from his mind. It can't be. Section 209 of Evin prison has invaded his soul.

Babak Zamanian has been transformed from one of Iran's most outspoken students into one of its walking dead. He's among thousands of political activists and journalists free on bail, but banned from leaving the country. He lives with the possibility of being tossed back into prison at any time. His life is in limbo. He faces a never-ending series of court dates and interrogations. His phone is probably tapped, his movements tracked.

Zamanian, 22, now doubts that it was worth it. Maybe he should have kept quiet and stuck to his studies at Tehran's Amir Kabir University of Technology, he says. He could have become a mining engineer, like his dad wanted, raised a family and read books and newspapers to sate his passion for politics.

At various times Western leaders opposed to Tehran's foreign policies have held out hope that activists such as Zamanian could produce a democratic groundswell against the clerical system.

But what is democracy anyway? Zamanian wonders. And what is freedom in a country such as Iran, bound by tradition and faith? He's not as sure as he used to be.

Protest organizer

Police arrested Zamanian on April 21. He was rounded up along with others at a demonstration against corruption near his university dormitory. He was just a curious onlooker there, he says. But they decided to keep him longer when they realized who he was.

He had been a student leader and organizer of a protest against President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's visit to his campus last December. The president's enforcers had begun systematically targeting students who didn't toe the government's line by putting stars next to their names on the school registry. One star might mean a student couldn't advance to graduate school, regardless of grades.

Three stars might mean a student would be booted off campus. Zamanian suspected he had racked up quite a few stars.

Amir Kabir, also known as Tehran Polytechnic, is among Iran's best universities. Zamanian, the older of two children, grew up in Nahavand, a city of 75,000 in Iran's mountainous west, and scored exceptionally well on exams to win a coveted spot at the college.

But the university is also a long-standing hotbed of student activism. Quick-witted and savvy, Zamanian found himself drawn to the heady campus politics. His father, a schoolteacher, was proud of his son for getting into the school and "left no stone unturned" to dissuade him from politics, he says.

"He told me that I would get nowhere," Zamanian says over lunch in the Iranian capital. "He believed I would only pay."

But Zamanian ignored the warnings. The tall, lanky young man became a student leader, often serving as a liaison between foreign media and campus groups. He organized rallies and held conferences. He told the international press that students would protest when Ahmadinejad came to the college last year.

"Death to dictatorship!" hundreds of students chanted at the rally, holding upside-down posters of the hard-line president. "Dictator, go home!"

The incident made international headlines. Publicly, Ahmadinejad said he welcomed the criticism and dialogue, and promised he would not exact revenge. But few in Iran believed him.

Four months later, Zamanian was blindfolded and taken away. At a court appearance he shuddered when he spotted an official paper that indicated where he was headed: Section 209, the infamous solitary confinement block run by the Ministry of Intelligence and Security.

In isolation

Prison, he says, was a macabre swirl of isolation, interrogation and beatings. Day and night became indistinguishable in his windowless cell, lit by a dreary florescent light that his jailers never turned off. He was summoned to the block's interrogation room every two days for sessions that stretched up to 24 hours. During interrogations, Zamanian says, he was forced to stand on one leg. Four chubby interrogators pummeled him if he tried to stand on both, so he would shift from leg to leg.

They demanded to know if he knew Haleh Esfandiari, the Iranian American scholar who was jailed in Iran until August, accused of trying to foment an anti-government uprising. They accused him of working with U.S. political foundations seeking change in Iran. He says he refused to answer and was beaten regularly for his defiance.

Zamanian says he might have brought on much of the abuse by resisting and toying with his interrogators. On the 12th or 13th day he was told he'd be released in 30 days if he'd confess in front of a television camera to collaborating with foreigners.

"Of course, I misled them," he says, grinning. "I accepted to appear before the camera, but . . . I denied any connection to them."

They got angry and began to beat him, he says, kicking him in the gut and tying his hands behind his back. He swore back at them, and one of the interrogators stood on his chest.

He went on a hunger strike. They showed him an article from Kayhan, the daily newspaper that is a mouthpiece of hard-line elements in the government, alleging that he had confessed to ties with the Soros Foundation, the American charity that promotes democracy overseas, and to Lynne Cheney, the wife of the U.S. vice president. Zamanian says emphatically that he has never asked for nor received any help from any foreign government.

They ordered him to copy the article word for word. He refused. They beat him again. They locked him up for 48 hours in a room with flashing lights and sirens.

What kept him going, he says, was the sense that he was fighting for a student movement that he imagined was burgeoning outside.

"At worst, I risked languishing 440 days in prison," as did Ali Afshari, a famous Iranian dissident now living in the United States, he said. "If I accepted the televised confession, the university's student movement would have gone up in the flames of disaster. I did not want to ruin Polytechnic." But the psychological abuse began to eat away at him. His captors told him that his father, who suffered coronary troubles, had had a heart attack. "I was sure that they were lying, but they kept on repeating their lies, and I was close to believing what they said," he says.

By the time they let Zamanian out he'd lost 35 pounds. He'd been in prison for 40 days. His father traveled alone from the provinces to receive him when he was released.

Before he left Evin his interrogators asked him to pardon them for their sins. He scoffed.

"Here is the sentence I told my interrogators on the last day: 'If I had seen you in the streets before I was arrested, I would not consider you qualified to carry manure.' I told them they understood nothing of Islam and I could not pardon. 'That's not important,' they said, but their faces were filled with anger."

Ignored and forgotten

The belief that he was part of a groundswell of change that had kept him going in prison was crushed as soon as he got out. Though his student friends honored him as a hero, Iran was in the midst of a massive crackdown on dissent and freedom of speech. More newspapers had been shut down. More activists arrested, including three of his friends at the university.

The same international news agencies that had enthusiastically covered the student protests hadn't bothered to report his imprisonment, some of them fearful of losing their press accreditation in Iran.

One of Zamanian's friends had called an Italian broadcaster who reported on the student demonstrations to tell her the student she'd put on camera was now in jail. The reporter said she wasn't interested, that the story was old news.

Instead of becoming a cause celebre, Zamanian found with dismay he'd been ignored and forgotten by much of the world.

One European diplomat in Tehran described the student movement as "the charge of the light brigade," a hopeless but valiant effort to change Iran from within.

"There really is no national movement," the diplomat said, speaking on condition of anonymity. "There are no political leaders. They're fighting for their country, but there really is no hope."

Zamanian finds himself baffled by the West's attitude toward Iran, speaking about democracy one day, raising the specter of armed conflict another, then offering to cut deals with the government the next.

He finds himself disgusted by the Iranian exile groups, including those in Los Angeles who beam their messages to the country via satellite. They urge Iranians not to take part in the political process, in effect handing the hard-liners a victory that has resulted in a more domestically repressive and internationally belligerent Iran, he says.

What is the goal here? he wonders. What is the strategy?

"They've worsened conditions," he says. "Today the West promotes negotiations. Tomorrow they brandish the threat of war. The best thing they could do is clarify their position."

After his release, Zamanian learned that his mother had cried every day of his imprisonment. The father who warned him to stay out of politics had put up the family house as bail. He says that if he could turn back the clock, he would take a safer path for himself and his parents.

"If I knew four years ago what I know right now, I would have never opted for student activism," he says. "It is not worth doing. But now, I am in the middle of the road and cannot step back. If I back down, many things may be lost because I'm now a symbol of the student movement."

He was summoned back to court Monday, but the prosecutor didn't show up. Several of his friends arrested after he was have been sentenced to three years in prison. He's packed a bag for the day they send him back to Evin. It includes about 30 books on philosophy, Iranian history and language. He wakes up frequently in the night, dreaming that he's back in Evin; dark rings have formed around his sunken green eyes. He moves awkwardly, as if he's trying to disappear despite his height.

"I am apparently free, but I am still a prisoner," he says. "I could be back in prison for the least activity."

Despite his doubts, he speaks at rallies and to international media, including U.S.-funded Radio Farda. He still talks to the younger students about Alexis de Tocqueville and pluralism, or to compare France's secular republic with Iran's Islamic system, but with little heart nowadays.

"I imagined it would be easy to create the ideal society I always dreamt of," he says. "But I realized over time that in Iran, democracy is a dream."

daragahi@latimes.com

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
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