With the election of Hassan Rouhani as Iran's new president, the international debate about reaching out to the "moderates" inside the Iranian regime has been reignited. But before we get overly excited at the prospect of a kinder, gentler breed of mullah, it's worth revisiting one of the most heinous examples of human rights abuse in Iran, a case that involves a man who carries the honorific Shi'a Muslim title of "ayatollah."
Over the last fortnight, the various Iranian emigre networks have lit up with renewed calls for the release of Ayatollah Hossein Bourojerdi. Bourojerdi, who has languished in Tehran's notorious Evin prison since 2006, preaches an Islamic doctrine that is utterly at odds with regime's outlook, in that he advocates the separation of mosque and state, and urges religious tolerance.
Boroujerdi is reported to be in grave physical condition. Among other ailments, he suffers from heart disease, and his supporters say that he is being denied medication. Even more disturbingly, Bourojerdi is reported to have undergone a new round of physical and psychological torture, as regime interrogators try and force him to sign a letter of repentance. According to this account, Bourojerdi is said to have spoken with his family by telephone after one such encounter, telling them "that he does not regret any of his actions and stands by his word, as he is prepared to die."
Throughout his seven years in prison, Bourojerdi has become adept at smuggling messages to the outside world. The latest bout of regime fury was apparently provoked by his call, issued at the end of May, for Iranians to boycott the elections of June 14, which resulted in a Rouhani victory. A more recent message, issued to mark the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, won't exactly mollify the Ayatollah's enemies; in it, Bourojerdi speaks of "the regime of cruelty and political religionism," and describes "thirty four years of Ramadans" in which Iran's rulers have "abused the spiritual convictions of society."
Such forthright declarations have always been Bourojerdi's style, which explains why the mullahs ran out of patience with him in 2006. In October of that year, Iranian police descended on Bourojerdi's house in south Tehran to find that several hundred of the Ayatollah's followers had formed a human shield around it. After a series of bitter clashes, Bourojerdi was finally pried out of his house and placed in custody. The regime then charged him with claiming to be a descendant of the Mah'di, a revered figure in Shi'a Islam who first appeared in the ninth century, and whose "return" is prayed for among followers of the dominant "Imami" branch of the religion. Bourojerdi has always denied making such a claim, countering that his only crime is to oppose Iran's ruling system of velayat e faqih, whereby Islamic jurists exercise total control over society and its institutions. Prior to his imprisonment, Bourojerdi encapsulated the essence of his faith by stating, "Only he (the Mah'di) has the legitimate competence to rule and pass judgment."
Throughout his incarceration, reports of Bourojerdi's declining health have frequently surfaced. In 2007, he was reported to have lost the vision in one of his eyes, and subsequent health bulletins have mentioned diabetes, kidney stones and malnutrition. Relatives and supporters have highlighted his ill health in letters to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and other leading international figures, but Bourojerdi's plight, outside of the Iranian diaspora circles that have diligently kept his name alive, remains a sadly obscure concern.
According to Bourojerdi's supporters, the ayatollah received a visit last week from state prosecutor Jafar Ghadiani, who told him, "We can kill you anytime we want and no one will be the wiser." While it's not possible to verify this actual quote, its substance certainly comports with the treatment that Bourojerdi has received at the hands of the ruling ayatollahs. Will President Rouhani boost his "moderate and pragmatic" credentials by releasing him–or at least appealing to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei to do so? Or is Bourojerdi fated to die in prison?