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2007 Thursday 15 March
When a bruised Kianoosh Sanjari climbed from the police van last October, he immediately recognised the familiar drab buildings of Evin prison section 240, run by the plainclothes branch of the Revolutionary Guards. His crime? Reporting for his weblog on the violent arrest of a religious group by security forces.
In his first interview since being released Iran's most prominent blogger recalls the rough tactics used against him by the authorities and the backlash against US support for democracy activists in the Islamic Republic.
In early October, Mr Sanjari went to the home in western Tehran of the dissident cleric Ayatollah Mohammed Kazemaini Borojerdi and watched as security forces attacked his followers outside.
"The alley was flooded with broken glass, water, teargas and riot police with batons hitting everybody," he said. "A police van was being used as a battering ram. Our eyes were burning and our faces hurt. I crawled into a camper van where another woman was hiding. I heard people being beaten and knew that in a few seconds, I'd be beaten too. The broken windows cut my side as I was pulled out. I was knocked unconscious."
He spent the next three months in Evin, where he had been interned several times before. He was blindfolded and questioned and slapped by the interrogator, whose questions took a new and sinister turn.
"The worst thing was they wanted to connect me to US politicians, especially to [neo-conservative] Richard Perle," he said. "They wanted me to write about US money being allocated to the democracy movement. Where does it go? Who gets it?"
As tensions between Iran and Western countries have escalated over the nuclear crisis and the wars in Iraq and Lebanon, the authorities have come to regard democracy activists as a potential fifth column. Separatist attacks in border provinces have been blamed on the US and Britain.
When Condoleezza Rice promised cash for Iranian democracy movements last year, activists and non-governmental organisations started to feel the heat.
"Such measures always have the reverse effect on the country to those intended," said Elaheh Koolaee, a former member of parliament and official for a major reformist party. "They increase the domestic reaction because of suspicions over the motives of foreign countries."
Koolaee's party supported a demonstration last week for international women's day that was violently dispersed by the police. Kayhan newspaper, which reflects hardliner views, accused the women of accepting foreign money and being a front for enemies of the Islamic Republic. Groups representing women, students, ethnic minorities and workers have all taken to the streets in recent months, but they now lack the meagre political cover once extended by Mohammed Khatami's government.
Those who seek change within the system increasingly fall foul of the authorities. One of the women arrested last week was Shadi Sadr, a young human rights lawyer who has successfully defended women facing the death penalty. Activists working within the system sometimes criticise those who reject it for giving the state an excuse to crack down. Others disagree.
"The state structure is closed to outsiders," said Abdullah Momeni, one of Iran's most prominent student leaders. "Political activists should change things with protest movements and civil disobedience, which can promote change without giving legitimacy to the system."
Mr Sanjari's development from wide-eyed student to hardened political prisoner by the age of 23 reflects the frustration of some young activists who see little point in engaging with the regime. Like many others, he has played a cat-and-mouse game with the authorities, fought in courtrooms and prison cells, at political demonstrations and online, or in the pages of foreign newspapers.
On one occasion, during the 2005 presidential elections, his flat was raided by security agents. "They pretended to be postmen bringing a letter from the Netherlands," he says. "I didn't open the door because I was scared. I could see from the window they didn't look like postmen. But the neighbours let them into the block and they broke down the door of my flat."
His first arrest at the age of 17 in 2001 led to a spell in Towhid prison, once used by the Shah to jail the future leaders of the Islamic Republic and since turned into a museum commemorating victims of pre-revolutionary torture. By 2002 he was a committed activist, spending another three months in prison. He later served a whole year, accused of membership of an illegal organisation.
"I didn't even think about my family at the time, but during the three months I was in prison they didn't know where I was," he said. "My mother went from court to court begging to see her son."
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