Tehran, Iran – A delegation of Iranian members of Parliament are expected to visit suspected anti-government protesters locked up in Tehran’s Evin prison on Sunday.
Their visit comes with the promise of investigating reports of detainees killed in police custody, an allegation government prosecutors have denied.
Most of those arrested were interrogated and released within a few weeks, according to official statements from government prosecutors.
An estimated 20 people remain in custody in Tehran and less than 100 people in other parts of the country.
Earlier this month, dozens of MPs, including reformist legislators and opposition politicians, wrote a letter to President Hassan Rouhani, demanding access to Evin prison.
The president’s office, as well parliamentary legislators have repeatedly said they want to avoid the “witch-hunts” that followed unrest in 2009 when millions protested the outcome of the presidential election that saw Mahmoud Ahmedinejad return to power.
And even though calm returned to the streets relatively quickly during the latest protests, many Iranians are still angry about their economic conditions and are losing faith in their elected leaders.
Hassan Norozi, a member of Parliament from Robat Karim in Tehran province and the spokesman for the Judicial Commission of Iran’s parliament, said the government acknowledges that demonstrations were started by people who had legitimate economic concerns and that no one in charge is taking pleasure in punishing their own people.
“I myself am a judge of the Islamic [legal] system of Iran,” Norozi said.
“For many years, I’ve been judging and issuing verdicts,” he added.
“But it doesn’t mean that I as a judge get happy when I jail someone or sentence someone to be lashed or executed. Those who hold rallies and protests, they are our children.”
Norozi said that those who are proven to have participated in vandalism or whose actions led to the deaths of two police officers would have to pay for their crimes. But he said his office had advised prosecutors to be lenient with most people, especially those charged with minor offenses or those who were only protesting.
“The heads of our judicial system are religious scholars who care about halal and haram [right and wrong] and if they want to jail someone, really, they do it with a heavy heart,” Norozi said.
“Our prison guards are not like those of the [Shah of Iran’s] regime to be merciless people. Righteous and religious people have been selected and the parliament itself is working more openly than the government and judiciary. There are several [competing] political parties in parliament and we cannot keep anything hidden at all.”
Norozi said painting a brutal picture of Iran’s leaders was unfair and that by virtue of being an Islamic government, Iran’s leaders were obliged to be merciful towards their own people.
Climate of fear
In the weeks that followed the anti-government protests, Iran’s security forces and police arrested thousands of suspected demonstrators. Most were interrogated and release, but some were made to sign a pledge, promising to never again participate in unrest or damage public property.
By coincidence or by design, government actions in the weeks following opposition rallies created an atmosphere of fear among activists in the country.
Nearly all those Al Jazeera tried to contact – even those who had marched in favour of the government in counterprotests – declined to speak. Many said they were not sure what the redlines were for the government or police and were worried they might say the wrong thing and land themselves in a prison cell.
In this climate of uncertainty, speaking publicly is seen as an act of courage.
Mohammad Motamedinejad, secretary of the student movement Justice Seekers, said that “naturally we see the protests as something positive, the legitimate protests of people to come [to the streets] to raise their demands.”
The group advocates for public housing and better economic conditions. They submit proposals to legislators in parliament but also took part in protests last month. But they pulled their people back when protests became violent.
“As long as problems exist, it will happen and it happens in all countries as well,” Motamedinejad said.
He added that the government should embrace demonstrators and their message as a form of constructive criticism.
“Some think that if people protest about a problem it equals animosity towards [Iran],” Motamedinejad said.
“In our opinion, that is not true … we want to confront this mindset and deal with sensitive issues and break the taboo to have a better atmosphere for criticism so we could advise the government to do good things and avoid doing bad things.”
But the government maintains that the protests were overtaken by “foreign enemies” and instead of framing the rallies as a display of civil rights, officials have framed them as an external threat to Iran’s national security.
Motamedinejad said he supports the Islamic establishment of the country but that blaming outside forces with no evidence does not address the economic grievances that sparked demonstrations in the first place.
“This is not the way to [talk about these issues],” he said.
“It is not the desirable way of informing people, just saying there are some issues without presenting documents or evidence … naturally this doesn’t [help] with the public trust of people or public opinions either inside or outside the country.”
Iran’s leaders say they live in a tough neighbourhood and maintaining internal stability must come first.
“We have some enemies that never hide their animosity,” Norozi said.
“America and [the] CIA and global imperialism and international zionists have never hidden their animosity towards us,” he added.
“[In this climate], any protest could [compromise] our security. While an organised and peaceful protest in the streets can give us realisations, it shouldn’t be in a way that our enemies could misuse.”
Norozi added that any Iranian is welcome to seek out people like him and demand their rights. But they would have to play by the government’s rules.
“I’ve been in parliament for two years,” he said.
“Most days we see thousands of people in front of parliament for protests. They come to hold banners, chant slogans, sometimes they are silent. We see they’re written banners,” he added.
“We speak to them. They agree, we agree, we legislate some laws for them. I don’t think there is a country that has [the kind of] freedom that we already have in Iran.”
While President Hassan Rouhani continues to publicly defend the rights of protesters, earlier this week, the Tehran provincial governor’s office denied a request by the city council to designate a part of the capital specifically for peaceful protests.
Critics say it’s an example of government doublespeak.
Protests and political culture
In 1979, still in exile in Paris, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini famously ordered every Iranian onto the streets to help overthrow the Shah of Iran.
Demonstrations were successful due in no small part to the business community in Tehran’s Grand Bazar. Many of the traders have been running their shops since before the Islamic Revolution.
“Protests have happened before and will happen again,” one shopkeeper said. “Demanding their rights on the streets is just something Iranians do.”
Whether the current government likes it or not, protests have become a part of Iran’s political culture.