Wednesday 05 March 2008

Protests Flare at 2 Iranian Campuses

Students Demand End to Ban on Activists, Ouster of College Head

By Thomas Erdbrink
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, March 5, 2008; A16

TEHRAN, March 4 -- Hundreds of students at two Iranian universities have mounted protests in recent days to decry the expulsion of student activists and call for the resignation of a government-appointed campus president.

Between 100 and 200 students at Allameh Tabatabai University in Tehran protested Tuesday against the recent banning of 40 students who had organized demonstrations against university authorities. In the central Iranian city of Shiraz, students have called for a university president to step down and demanded higher-quality food and housing.

"The students are against the banning of their friends," said Rashid, a 25-year-old graduate student in Tehran who refused to give his family name out of fear he would be arrested. He said he was recently expelled from Allameh Tabatabai and later beaten by security guards when he tried to visit the university.

The recent demonstrations are not overtly directed against the government, but student unrest has sometimes turned political. Last year, 150 students at Amir Kabir University in Tehran burned portraits of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, calling him a "dictator." In 1999, thousands of students faced off against security forces in Tehran for nearly a week.

Nowadays the protests are mostly small, attended by no more than a couple of hundred people. Iran has about 2 million university students.

"Those in power are speaking of a second cultural revolution, by which they mean limitation of universities. They want the students to be quiet," Rashid said, referring to a period following the 1979 revolution in Iran in which the universities were purged of Western and non-Islamic influences.

Hundreds of students have also been demonstrating at the main university in Shiraz for more than a week, demanding that the chancellor, Mohammad Hadi Sadeghi, step down. The university head, a former Revolutionary Guard Corps commander, was put in charge after Ahmadinejad in 2006 instigated a nationwide purge of university professors and chancellors considered too liberal or secular.

The students, who also call for better food and housing, say Sadeghi was appointed without the consultation of faculty members. Student leaders say other protests have taken place recently in the cities of Kerman, Esfahan and Shahrud.

"There has been a wave of threats by the university security forces and the intelligence ministry against both students and their families by telephone," a demonstrator in Shiraz said in a phone interview. She also asked not to be named out of fear of arrest, and said that security forces have tried to intervene with force but that the protests in Shiraz were continuing.

During the interview, slogans could be heard. "We are fighters, men and women," students shouted. "Fight us and we will fight." Clips of their protests have been posted on Youtube:. have been posted on the YouTube Web site.

According to the student in Shiraz, some expatriate opposition groups are misrepresenting the protests as a political revolt. "But we are not here for politics," she said. "According to the law, students in Iran have the right to demand that the dean steps down."

Rashid, the protester in Tehran, said: "The protests are increasing because religious fundamentalists have created an atmosphere of oppression and silence in the society, but they haven't been successful in universities. We are afraid the pressure on us will increase."

Abdollah Momeni, a former student activist who has been jailed several times, said the students' main demand is to improve the quality of housing and food. "But these complaints are aggravated by oppressive atmosphere at the universities, which is starting to rein us in because many new university heads are former military people," Momeni said. "They don't pay attention to the students' problems. This is the result."

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