Iranian journalist and human rights activist Houshang Asadi, born in 1950, was detained several times under the Shah regime. During his imprisonment, he shared his cell with today’s ‘Supreme Leader’ and dictator Ayatollah Khamenei, as well as with Mehdi Karroubi, the oppositional leader of the ‘Green Movement’, which was made of mass protests against the rigged presidential elections of 2009. After the Islamic Revolution in 1979, Asadi’s persecution continued. In 1983, he was arrested and sent to the notorious Moshtarek Prison, where he spent almost two years in solitary confinement. In order to survive, Houshang ‘confessed’ under torture to actively ‘spying for the British and Soviet secret service’. He was sentenced to death by hanging, and later his death sentence was converted to a 15-year prison sentence. After six years in prison, he was released; in 2003, he managed to escape from Iran. Today, Houshang Asadi lives with his wife in exile in France. He became, among others, co-founder of the influential dissident Persian-language website ‘roozonline.com’. In 2010, he published his book ‘Letters to my Torturer’ in which he describes his experiences in Iranian prisons and at the beginning of June, he was awarded the Human Rights Book Award 2011. The interview was conducted by ISHR staff members, Maya Robinson and Daniel Holler at the ISHR Headquarters in Frankfurt in August of 2016.
Can you tell us about the current human rights situation in Iran?
Unfortunately, the current human rights situation is getting worse. The people think that after they solved the atomic issue and chose Mr. Rouhani as the president, the problems would improve, but regarding human rights, nothing is getting better, it is getting worse. A lot of Iranian journalists, other political activists and Bahá'ís are in prison. There is no sign of freedom of press. Iran is a lot worse off than during the reign of Ahmadinejad.
Has the human rights situation changed at all since the nuclear agreement with the United States? If so, in what ways?
Nothing has changed, it only got worse. We expected that to happen because we know that when the government opens the door to the outside of the country, it is just for the economy. Any time the door – not the door, the window – opens to the outside of the country, we know that the windows and doors close inside the country because they arrest the journalists and people. They do not want anything to change inside Iran. They only know dictatorship. If people, the journalists, human rights activists and others talk with people, the regime cannot do anything and it would be finished. Therefore, they completely close all the doors.
What do you feel are some of the primary issues that human rights work in Iran should focus on at this time?
Freedom is the most important issue. Freedom for journalists, freedom for NGOs, for the people who work with human rights, freedom for the activists and for all the people because they don’t allow independent people or independent voices to continue, so they arrest them. Then the second problem is the death penalty in Iran. They kill and they kill and they kill many people and execute a lot of people each month. Dr. Ahmed Shaheed [United Nations Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in the Islamic Republic of Iran] talked to the media and said that in 2015, nearly 1000 people were executed in Iran. The main problem is freedom. If you have freedom, you can talk about everything and stop everything. However, you cannot talk about everything and the media cannot talk about everything. The government — not the government, but the people who are linked to Khamenei — think that any gap in the dictatorship can lead to something happening in Iran like in Russia. They are afraid of a change of government.
There are many artists such as Atena Farghadani or the musicians of the band Confess in Iran that are threatened by the regime. What do you feel are the prospects for artists in your home country?
There are not just these people, they have arrested many more. The musicians, the artists, directors, and others, the young people, who don’t believe in this kind of government. They cannot try to do anything differently because they will arrest them. Two or three months before, they started to cancel all the concerts. Not the government, but the courts, saying that they did not like the musicians playing. Shahram Nazeri is a very famous Iranian musician [traditional Iranian classical music], and for a long time – even during the reign of Ahmadinejad – he had many concerts in and outside Iran. Two nights before, they cancelled all of his concerts just saying, that it was corrupting the people. So this is not only a problem of these people, it is a problem of all the artists in Iran. In any field, in music, in the cinema, in the theatre and so on, because they think that all these people publish Western culture and want to root it out. They do not allow these people to get politically involved.
The Green Movement of 2009 was mostly made of young people; do you think we also have a chance to have a second Green Movement soon?
I do not know about a second, or first, but I know and believe, because of my job, I have been in contact with the younger Iranian generation – inside and outside of Iran – that it is just only a question of time, maybe today, maybe tomorrow, maybe later. I do not know when, but eventually the government has to change the situation because I know most of the people and young people do not want this government and do not want this culture. They want to live free.
Do you think it would be very important to separate religion and state?
This is one solution for Iranian problems, just like in the West where religion and state are separated. Some Iranians are working on it. It takes a lot of time. When we think about Iran, we have to consider the Shia Renaissance [Comment: Shia Renaissance as a meaning of a newly gained self-confidence of Shia belief and its influence in several countries and regions, as it has been oppressed for centuries by Sunnis]. An Islamic Renaissance can only happen when taking in consideration the so-called Shia Renaissance, like the renaissance of the West, which separated the secular and religious influence gradually.
Previously, many political prisoners have been released. Do you think that might be a symbol for the future?
No, they have not been released. The dealings with the prisoners is already finished. They were in prison for a long time, they finished their sentence and were released. A lot of the journalists and other people have been arrested. A few months ago, Mr. [Isa] Saharkhiz, [Ehsan] Mazandarani, [Saman] Safarzaie [three well-known journalists and political prisoners] were arrested [on November 2, 2015 by the Revolutionary Guards] and also Afarin Chitsaz, a woman journalist [after 8 months in prison she has been released after paying bail of equal to 324,000 USD on July 5, 2016]. They were arrested, and for a few months, nobody knew where they were. Only the family of Afarin Chitsaz told the media she was being tortured in her prison cell.
Now Iran is opening up. Countries like Germany are looking for business in Iran. Do you think that is helping the Iranian people or is it dangerous?
It is helping the Iranian government if the Western countries think that nothing bad has happened, that everything is ok and Iran has changed and that they can make deals within this situation. It is good, if they go to Iran, as we need new markets and need to make new connections with the West – it is what my country needs. However, they must know that if they do not help change the human rights situation in Iran, in the long term nothing will happen, it is only short term.
After the atomic issue, the government started with an inner Muslim conflict. [Comment: when Saudi Arabia executed a religious leader of Shia Belief in January 2016, Iran – and many other Shia led countries/regions – raised strong concerns and it came to violent protests] They are now fighting against Saudi Arabia and they are fighting in Iran [Comment: there were violent protests against Saudi Arabia]. In Teheran, they are working on spreading the Shia Agenda in the whole Middle East and they think that their Islam is the best in the world and that they must change the world.
This difficult situation is unsolved and it is open to see Western governments going into Iran. It is very good. However, please do not forget that human rights have to change in order to change the government in this country. When there are some women from other governments going to Iran, wearing a rusari [head scarf] or a chador or something, [our] young people don’t like it. They say: We like Western culture, because of the principles of the Western culture. Why when you go to Iran, you cover your head? Do you cover your head for money? Do you cover your head for trade? This is a bad influence for young Iranians – and all Iranians. Especially when Madame [Federica] Mogherini [European Union Foreign Policy Chief, who covered her head while visiting in the country] goes to Iran, it is not nice.
Do you think the regime has the chance to stop western influence?
Never, because most of the Iranian people, especially the young generation, most of them are pro-Western and pro-modern cultures. They do anything they want in private, in their house, on their roof, at their parties. The government are dumb people. No dictator government can stop humanity in the society. There is no chance. Sooner or later the building of Iran will break.
Do you think the Iranian government would be listening to European politicians and companies for human rights?
Yes. Iran has a lot of people and young people that follow the internet. They follow all the details about the European and American ideas and thoughts between Iran. For example, tomorrow the president of Croatia – a very beautiful women – will go to Iran. Iranian people found her pictures of her swimming in a bikini published on the internet. They asked her, are you going to Iran? You wear a bikini in your country and then you go to Iran and cover your head? Which one is true? So I repeat: it is great to go to Iran, but please use free speech there. The Iranian people follow step by step what happens between Europe and Iran.
Do you feel threatened in Europe or have any problems with Iranian security?
No, because the Iranian government knows that it does not work to kill people and arrest them in the West. However, we know that in the whole country [France] and in all of the Western countries, the Iranian security agency has its members that follow the Iranian people. They gather information about us. For me personally, there are currently no issues.
During your time in prison, you shared a cell with Ayatollah Khamenei. What do you feel when you see him in the media now?
I get really sad, really! He speaks like a dictator. He tells the young people, those clothes are not good, do not wear these clothes, do not change your clothes, do not change your mind, and do not go on Facebook. It is something like this. I think he was a true Islamic man, he was a good man. For many years, he was in prison. He had a bigger vision of Iran, he could have been a father for Iran, he could have been a great man in the history of Iran. He intended to change Iran from the past to the future! But he stopped everything and he just said what he wanted the people to do. I am sad, really, that a good man changed into a dictator.
Does human rights work make sense in Iran (for example: protests, demonstrations, signature lists etcetera)?
All of this is useful, but for many years, I have been working towards making a human rights television station. After my book won the 2011 Human Rights Book Award [Link to IGFM Article], I think we need a human rights station in many languages – not just for Iran – but the whole world. We have many, many television stations and websites, but, unfortunately, in the modern world we do not even have one single television station for human rights. It would be only for presenting human rights problems. The lack of human rights is the biggest problem of this century, especially in the Middle East and countries like Iran. Maybe Germany and your organization can make the first step, get funding, and establish a station like this for human rights.
Do you have any recommendations to the IGFM in regards to our human rights work?
I want to first thank the IGFM for what they do for Iranian freedom and human rights. For many years, I have known your organization and followed your activity there, and it is my duty to give many, many thanks to your organization. Most of the Iranian journalists and most of the Iranian people do not know what happens in Iran or about what you do. For example that you publish news, and the activities you do etcetera. What I think we need at this time in Iran is that you should not think something improved after Rouhani and that anything has changed Iran. The Iranian government and the leader, Mr. Khamenei, is a dictatorship government. It is against freedom. It is the government against the West and its culture. Ajatollah Khamenei said a few days ago and many times before that, “I am a hater of the West and its culture. The Western culture is corrupted and all the women are whores. The people just work day to day, drink vodka and then they go to bed.” The Khamenei I know for years, is a fundamentalist and is against everything Western. People who follow Khamenei have the key organisation in Iran, they think like Khamenei. Therefore, we must do more and more for human rights and freedom of religion in Iran.
What can a normal citizen do to help with human rights in Iran?
Just help to spread information through your organisation about what people can do, what has happened and the reality in Iran because the media in Iran cannot talk. Many Iranian TV networks and many newspapers are working against human rights. They say that everything in Iran is great, that nothing bad has happened and that the people they have arrested are the spies for CIA and Mossad or something like this. So the [Iranian] people need to know more and more about the reality in Iran.
Can you give us a message or tell us anything you want to tell us for our members?
You are very kind people to be members of this good organization to help human rights. Please ask your organization to always follow Iranian human rights. Especially the political prisoners and women who are arrested and imprisoned. Tell your organization leaders, it is good to go to Iran for trade but it is not enough. The main problem in Iran is the disastrous human rights situation. In the end, I am very, very thankful for all of you and the entire IGFM organisation.