Snapshot of activism
Ahmad Zeidabadi is an Iranian journalist, Middle East expert, and well-known dissident.
Zeiadabadi, who earned his doctorate with a thesis titled "Religion and Government in Israel," has worked as a journalist since 1989, coming to prominence as a writer for Tehran's Hamshahri ("Fellow Citizen") newspaper. Zeidabadi, ideologically affiliated with Iran's Melli-Mazhabi (Nationalist-Religious) movement, first became a target of the judiciary when the government cracked down on that and other political movements affiliated with reformist ex-President Mohammad Khatami in 2000.
In addition to his work as a journalist, Zeidabadi sits on the board of directors of the Society [LA1] of Iranian Journalists, and was part of the policy committee of Advar-e Tahkim Vahdat (ATV). He went on to be elected president of ATV, which functions as the alumni association of Daftar-e Tahkim Vahdat, the Office for Strengthening Unity, one of Iran's foremost student associations and one that is strongly reformist and pro-democracy.
After Zeidabadi and the association endorsed former Parliament speaker and reformist candidate Mehdi Karroubi in the disputed 2009 presidential elections, Zeiabadi was arrested by security forces. In December 2009, the Iranian judiciary sentenced him to six years' imprisonment on charges of "conspiring to create public turmoil." Despite a few brief furloughs since that time, he is currently serving the remainder of his sentence in Tehran's Raja'i-Shahr Prison.
Ahmad Zeidabadi was born in Sirjan, a city in Kerman Province in southeastern Iran, in 1965. He is married to Mehdieh Mohammadi, with whom he has three sons: Parhaam, Parsa, and Pooya. Zeidabadi received his PhD from the University of Tehran, where he wrote his doctoral thesis, “Religion and Government in Israel.”Zeidabadi has focused on Israel in both his academic and professional career, a rarity in the Islamic Republic.
After the death of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1989, Zeidabadi began his career as a journalist, taking a job at Ettela'at ("Information"), Iran's longest-running daily newspaper. When reformist politician Gholam-Hossein Karbaschi was appointed Mayor of Tehran in 1989 and founded Hamshahri ("Fellow Citizen"), Zeidabadi left Ettela'at to provide political analysis for the new newspaper. Zeidabadi also wrote articles for Iran-e Farda ("Tomorrow's Iran"), a monthly periodical published by Ezzatollah Sahabi, the leader of Iran's Nationalist-Religious coalition of political groups.
When reformist Mohammad Khatami won a landslide victory in Iran's 1997 presidential election, a more relaxed media environment and the easing of government censorship allowed a large number of pro-reform print media outlets to emerge. Ahmad Zeidabadi was an active member of this reformist press, editing the newspaper Azad ("Free") for a period of several months between 1999 and 2000. When hardliners both inside and outside the government moved to stymie Khatami's agenda and block his attempts to open the Iranian system, journalists like Zeidabadi became targets. His first arrest came on August 7, 2000, when security forces seized him for what Tehran prosecutor Saeed Mortazavi, who has been regularly implicated in crackdowns on the press and more recently in the deaths of protestors in 2009, described as failing to answer court summons. Zeidabadi went on to spent seven months in Tehran's Evin Prison, of which two were spent in solitary confinement and the rest alongside drug smugglers and other criminals. Zeidabadi was also held in the prison's "re-education" area, as well as in a detention center managed by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. The harsh conditions there prompted Zeidabadi to stage a 12-day hunger strike, after which he was finally released, albeit briefly, on February 28, 2001.
On March 13, less than two weeks after leaving prison, Zeidabadi was arrested again, this time alongside 20 members of the Nationalist-Religious coalition, for “conspiring against the government.” After Speaker of Parliament Mehdi Karroubi intervened on his behalf, Zeidabadi was released after posting $70,000 USD bail. (After Karroubi ran for President in 2009 and Zeidabadi became a key supporter of his campaign, both went on to be imprisoned in the post-election turmoil.) In early 2002, he was put on trial, prosecuted by Mortazavi, and ultimately sentenced to 23 months in prison, later reduced to 13 on appeal. In addition, he was banned from "all public and social activity, including journalism" for a period of five years. In all, he spent a total of 13 months in prison between 2000 and 2004, although the five-year ban on public activity did not deter him from subsequently advocating a boycott of the 2005 presidential election. The actions taken against him by the judiciary did not end his journalistic career either; after hardliners took control of Tehran's city government in 2003 and turned Hamshahri into a mouthpiece for newly-elected mayor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Zeidabadi began writing for other reformist outlets, including Shahrvand-e Emrooz ("Today's Citizen") and Europe-based Rooz ("Day").
As a prominent member of the Iranian press, Zeidabadi has long advocated for the rights of free expression. Even from prison, he has refused to surrender his outspoken belief in the importance of dissent. According to fellow dissident and journalist Akbar Ganji, who accepted Zeidabadi’s 2010 Golden Pen of Freedom prize on his behalf, Zeidabadi is “a liberal, and a democrat. He has always defended the rights of those who think differently. He believes that it is the inalienable right of people to change their ideas and be free to choose the way they live. He has always defended the rights of women and been critical of discriminatory traditions against women. He believes that a government is a product of a people's will and must abide by that will. In his judgment, a political leader is simply representative of people and responsible to them – and not a sanctified person who assumes a position beyond reproach.”
In the absence of authorized dissent, Zeidabadi risked his own imprisonment and torture by reproaching Iran’s leaders on a range of issues. In 2007, he wrote a widely-circulated letter addressed to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei; in the letter, he directly addressed Khamenei, which Zeidabadi himself acknowledged as a violation of one of the Islamic Republic’s most strictly enforced “red lines.” The questions themselves were direct, and would later have severe consequences for the journalist. In the first part of the letter, he asked what the legal and rational reasons for forbidding questioning or criticism of the Leader were, stating that media outlets in other countries were permitted to criticize their leaders freely. Furthermore, Zeidabadi pointed out that Iranian state television even covered protests against the Bush administration in the United States. Zeidabadi then took on Iran’s most sensitive foreign policy issue, directly criticizing the Islamic Republic’s handling of its nuclear program and the ensuing standoff with the international community. Near the end of the letter, he writes: “In any event, the fact of the matter is that many Iranians see the current nuclear crisis, and the whole of the country’s circumstances, differently than the Supreme Leader does. They’re scared of what the country’s future holds! Are they supposed to hold back their fears? If they don’t, should our respected Minister of Intelligence go around threatening them?” Zeidabadi’s stance on Iran’s nuclear program was harshly critical of the government, viewing its actions as “provocative and unwise” and constituting a threat to Iran’s territorial integrity. In 2009, when Zeidabadi was arrested, the letter led to his being severely beaten in order to force out an apology to Khamenei.
Regarding another key element of Iranian foreign policy, Ahmad Zeidabadi’s academic interest in Israel and his objective commentary on events in the Middle East stand in sharp contrast to the bellicose rhetoric more often used by Iranian political leaders and government-affiliated media outlets, who often blame a wide variety of events on what they refer to as the “Zionist regime.” After completing his thesis on the relationship between religion and politics in Israel, Zeidabadi continued to write about events there on a regular basis. His pieces, which were published by the BBC’s Persian-language service and by Rooz Online, covered issues such as former Israel Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s shifting views on the Arab-Israeli peace process, the struggles between secular and Orthodox groups within Israeli society, and international efforts to mediate the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah in 2006. He even went so far as to criticize Iranian policy towards Israel and the Arab world, stating in one column: “The leaders of Iran must be warned to consider whether they are truly protecting the country’s interests in the Middle East, or whether their bizarre policies are intended to make Iran a scapegoat in the Arab-Israeli quarrel.”In his address, Akbar Ganji described Zeidabadi’s belief that the fate of the Palestinian people had to be determined by the Palestinians themselves, without any outside power, including the Islamic Republic of Iran, “abus[ing] the fate of the Palestinians as an instrument for furthering its own interests and objectives.” As both Ganji and Zeidabadi indicate, these stances have prompted severe reprisals from the Iranian government.
Zeidabadi, as a prominent dissident and leading media figure, has received considerable attention from international cultural and literary organizations and human rights bodies. In 2010, for example, the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA) awarded him its "Golden Pen of Freedom" award, intended to "recognize the outstanding actions, in writing and deed, of an individual, a group or an institution in the case of press freedom." The prize was officially presented in a ceremony at the 2010 World Editors' Forum, held in in Hamburg, Germany on October 6th. With Zeidabadi in prison and unable to attend, the Golden Pen of Freedom was accepted by Akbar Ganji, himself the 2006 laureate of the award, on Zeidabadi's behalf. In his address, Ganji praised his colleague’s vocal opposition to autocracy in Iran: "Ahmad Zeidabadi was among those who opposed this tyrannical rule [of Iran's religious ruling establishment] that has violated the constitutional rights of the people--and thus jail and solitary confinement has become his lot. I have no doubt that if Ahmad Zeidabadi was here with us, he would have shared the honor of this prestigious prize with other political prisoners. One must interpret these awards as a kind of ethical and moral endorsement of democratic activists who are committed to liberty and human rights."
In April 2011, Ahmad Zeidabadi was again recognized for his work as a journalist by UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization). An international jury of 12 media professionals awarded him UNESCO's Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize, which is awarded annually on World Press Freedom Day (May 3rd) and, according to the organization, "honors the work of an individual or an organization defending or promoting freedom of expression anywhere in the world, especially if this action puts the individual’s life at risk." In explaining their choice, jury head Diana Senghor stated: "The final choice of Ahmad Zeidabadi pays a tribute to his exceptional courage, resistance and commitment to freedom of expression, democracy, human rights, tolerance, and humanity. Beyond him, also the Prize will award the numerous Iranian journalists who are currently jailed." UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova voiced her agreement with the jury's decision, praising Zeidabadi as someone who "has courageously and unceasingly spoken out for press freedom and freedom of expression, which is a fundamental human right that underpins all other civil liberties, a key ingredient of tolerant and open societies and vital for the rule of law and democratic governance" over the course of his career."
In response to the UNESCO award, Ahmad Zeidabadi addressed a message to the organization from Raja'i-Shahr Prison in Tehran. In his statement, he wrote: "the Revolutionary Court, in addition to sentencing me to six years' imprisonment, five years of exile and a lifetime ban on political, social and journalistic activity, has also banned me forever from any writing and speaking. Therefore, any message by me would add to my suffering and that of my family. Despite that restriction, I would like to make it clear that in the performance of my profession, I had no means but my pen and my speech, and that in using those means, I never went beyond the narrow and limited confines of the Iranian government's laws and regulations. But, in violation of their own laws and regulations, they have imposed pain and suffering beyond my endurance -- pain and suffering resembling those of a person who is crucified for weeks or buried alive. While in prison, I constantly strive to forgive, but I cannot forget."
Where Is He Now?
Ahmad Zeidabadi is one of scores of Iranian politicians, activists, dissidents, and intellectuals who continue to be imprisoned for their participation in the disputed 2009 presidential election. As a prominent member of both Iran's news media and civil society, Zeidabadi played an active role in building support for reformist candidates in the run-up to the vote. He publicly discouraged former President Khatami from running for the office for fear of damaging his credibility; in his place, he attempted to convince former Interior Minister Abdollah Nouri to run. When other reformist organizations refused to coalesce behind him, Zeidabadi and the Advar-e Tahkim Vahdat (ATV)debated backing either Mir Hossein Mousavi or Mehdi Karroubi. They ultimately sided with Karroubi, playing an active role in his campaign. According to Akbar Ganji, Zeidabadi’s goal for the campaign was to find “a candidate who would offer relatively more radical ideas that would in turn initiate a [nonviolent] social movement.” Stressing his colleague’s commitment to nonviolence as the way to achieving democracy and human rights, Ganji went on to explain that Zeidabadi viewed such a movement as a means of arousing sympathy in the international community while forcing Iranians at home to confront their own government’s repression of unarmed intellectuals.
Beginning the day after the election, Iranian security forces and the government responded to widespread allegations of fraud, and the mass protests that followed, with a wave of arrests and a violent crackdown on protests. Reformist and opposition figures, including both Zeidabadi and hundreds of other former officials, journalists, and activists, were imprisoned and accused of trying to foment a "velvet revolution" with foreign backing. Two months after the election, Zeidabadi was one of 100 journalists and pro-reform public figures brought before the judiciary in a televised mass trial; numerous observers compared the proceedings to Stalinist show trials in the former Soviet Union. Before his trial, the prosecutor for his case personally blocked his court-approved release on $250,000 USD bail, even though the Zeidabadi family had already posted it. Branch 26 of Iran's Revolutionary Courts ultimately convicted Zeidabadi of "propaganda against the regime" and "conspiring to create public turmoil," in part for his efforts in trying to convince Abdollah Nouri to run for office. The court sentenced him to six years in prison, to be followed by five years of "internal exile." He was banned from journalism, as well as any other civic or political activity, for life. One week after the start of his trial, he began a hunger strike that ultimately led to a 17-day hospitalization.  After his conviction, an appeals court upheld the entirety of his sentence.
With the exception of a few brief furloughs, Ahmad Zeidabadi has been a political prisoner since. In February 2010, Zeidabadi was transferred to Raja'i-Shahr Prison in Tehran, a facility typically used to house violent offenders and drug dealers. The imprisoned journalist was housed with two murderers and a drug dealer. After protesting against the "inhumane treatment" of another political prisoner, Zeidabadi was transferred to a different ward that May, and was later refused on furlough on the one-year anniversary of his imprisonment in June. The first furlough finally came in August 2011 (for 48 hours), with another two in March and August 2012 (with the August release being for one week). Outside of these brief respites from detention, the conditions faced by Zeidabadi and his fellow political prisoners have been exceptionally harsh; speaking to his son during a visit in October 2011, he described the prisons of the 1980s and early 2000s as a “picnic” compared to life in those same prisons today. In January 2013, he was one of several jailed dissidents released on temporary furlough. In the run-up to the 2013 presidential election, however, an extension of the release was denied, and he was returned to prison on May 30. In July 2013, Zeidabadi was one of 63 political prisoners housed in Ward 4 (Hall 12) of Raja’i-Shahr to write a joint letter of condolence to the family of Afshin Osanloo. Osanloo, a labor leader and brother of activist Mansour Osanloo, had died while serving a prison term for his activism. After the elections and the inauguration of President Hassan Rouhani, Zeidabadi’s Facebook page announced on August 18 that he had once again been released on furlough; he returned to prison in January 2014. He also had a 7 day furlough for Persian new year in late March and early April.
After six years' imprisonment at Raja'i-Shahr, Ahmad Zeidabadi was sent into internal exile on May 21, 2015. Zeidabadi was taken directly from Raja'i-Shahr to the town of Gonabad in Razavi Khorasan Province, where he has been exiled for five years "at his own expense."
After arriving in Gonabad, a local resident and self-described "pro-government revolutionary youth" named Saeed Moghaddam penned an open letter to Zeidabadi. In the letter, Moghaddam threatens him with death at the hands of Gonabad's "young revolutionaries" if he continues his activism: "Mr. Zeidabadi, I advise you to give up your political machinations and spend a little time taking care of your shattered family during the five years you will spend here. Otherwise, the revolutionary youth of Gonabad will not tolerate your plotting for a second. Perhaps the nightmares of the six years you spent in prison will return to haunt your sleep here in Gonabad."
Ahmad Zeidabadi Wikipedia Page(in English)
Ahmad Zeidabadi Facebook Page (Unofficial) (in Persian)
Amnesty International Briefing on Ahmad Zeidabadi (in English)
Full Text of Akbar Ganji's Remarks to WAN-IFRA (in English)
PBS Feature on Ahmad Zeidabadi (TehranBureau) (in English)