Dickey: 100 Iranians on trial, one baby's future in the balance

Paola Gourley, 40, does not want to know whether the baby she's carrying will be a boy or a girl. At least, not yet. The father, Maziar Bahari, 42, is in prison in Iran, where he has been held without access to a lawyer or any chance to see his family since June 21. Paola, an Italian-English lawyer working in London, has no idea how much longer Maziar will be kept from her, and this is the first child for both of them. So when sonograms show the gender of their baby, she says she will put the results in an envelope and seal it, hoping that Maziar will be freed soon and they can look at the results together. But in the back of Paola's mind, there is a growing fear that their baby will be born in November and Maziar will still be in prison.

"I try to keep positive, but that's my biggest fear, that this is going to be a long-term thing," she told me from London on Tuesday. "I just hope that the people holding Maziar realize just how unfair it is, and that they release him soon. I am petrified that they will use him as a scapegoat and keep him in jail, and that he won't be with me when the baby is born. It makes me desperately sad."

The only time Paola has seen any image of Maziar since his arrest was last Saturday, when he appeared on Iranian government news programs as one of about 100 defendants in the show trial now being staged in Tehran. He looked "gaunt," Paola said, unshaven and much thinner than the Maziar she knows. According to a state-news report, Maziar—a veteran print journalist for NEWSWEEK and an acclaimed documentary filmmaker—"confessed" that in some of his reports he might "unknowingly" have helped further an alleged conspiracy to undermine the regime through peaceful protest.

That's right: peaceful protest. The regime calls that a "color revolution" or a "velvet revolution" like the ones that changed the face of Eastern Europe over the last 20 years. Maziar also has admitted that he filmed violence on the fringes of the enormous dignified and silent marches that took place after the contested reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on June 12 (as, indeed, he was fully accredited and licensed to do by the government of Iran). In particular, on June 15 Maziar recorded high-quality videotape of some fiery clashes that turned deadly as hooligans with Molotov cocktails confronted the government’s Basij militias and their guns. On Saturday, a subdued, somber Maziar apologized and reportedly asked Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to grant him a pardon.

"During the time that I was preparing reports and images of the illegal gatherings in Tehran I unknowingly created the grounds to endanger national security," he said in a script that reads like something out of Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon. "But now I have to accept that. The Supreme Leader managed the issue very well and settled the country."

Maziar, whom I have known for more than a decade, should not be in prison at all. Let's be clear about that. His reporting is scrupulous, fair, and balanced. Indeed, I've often argued with him when he defended some of the regime's most controversial major policies, including the nuclear-enrichment activities that have widespread support throughout the Iranian population. One of his documentary films—about the antiregime militant group Mujahedin-e Khalq, classified as a terrorist organization by the United States—earned him some blistering criticism in the West. In his reports for Newsweek.com after the election, he was careful to present both sides—noting that some demonstrators had started hurling rocks at the Basij before they fired into the crowd, and raising the possibility that outside agitators might have infiltrated some of the crowds.

A passionate patriot, Maziar's constant aim has been to portray Iran as the deeply proud, subtly complicated, and impressively sophisticated society that it is. But as Paola knows—and all of us know, in fact—the process he's caught up in now is not constitutional and follows no legal precedent, unless you count the Stalin-era show trials of the Communist Soviet Union, or maybe their American reflection, the red-baiting congressional hearings of the 1940s and 1950s.

Even in his supposed confessions, all that Maziar said that he did was the job the Iranian government had licensed him to do: sending reports to NEWSWEEK and videotaping events on the streets. Two months ago that was not a crime. Indeed, the Iranian regime wanted as much coverage of the June 12 election as possible. It welcomed hundreds of foreign journalists into the country to report on the landslide reelection victory it expected for the incumbent Ahmadinejad, who will be inaugurated for his second term on Wednesday. At the time, with Ahmadinejad comfortably ahead in what few polls were available, the regime seemed to have nothing to fear from outside scrutiny.

Then the government announced only a few hours after the vote that Ahmadinejad had won (which was unlikely but not implausible) by almost a two thirds majority (which strained credulity, to say the least). Hundreds of thousands of people poured into the streets claiming their votes had been stolen, and for several days the government seemed paralyzed, unable to respond except with the club-wielding volunteers from the Basij militia. Sometimes they met with incredibly brave forbearance. One Iranian friend of mine watched as a small group of matronly—indeed, motherly—middle aged women dressed in conservative chadors stood their ground as the blows from the Basij batons hammered against their bodies. "Don't do that, honey," one told her attacker. "Don't do that. You'll make yourself tired. You'll wear yourself out."

Even the Supreme Leader appeared stunned by the reaction after he gave his instant benediction to what looked like prepackaged election results. The regime's fallback position has been to claim that anyone who questioned the results—or reported on those questioning the results—was the tool of a vast international plot against the Islamic republic. This is a charge that the conservative media in Iran has been promoting for years, at least since 2006, when Ahmadinejad's popularity started to take a beating because of the country's economic woes.

The mass arrests that followed the election have not been able to conceal the enormous divisions opening up in Iran's power structure as the theocracy's core religious leadership fractured. The minister of intelligence and the minister of culture, who oversees the press, have both resigned. Former prime minister Mir Hossein Mousavi, Ahmadinejad's main rival in the campaign, along with former Iranian presidents Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami, have leveled fierce criticism against the regime and refused to be silenced. One of Khatami's former vice presidents, Mohammad Ali Abtahi, is among the defendants in the show trial that began on Saturday. He dutifully recited, as prisoners almost always do at such events, the government-imposed line that there was really no fraud in the elections. But speculation is growing in Iran that the former prime minister and the former presidents may be the next people to be arrested in a process so redolent of totalitarianism.

In the middle of this ferocious political maelstrom, Maziar Bahari's innocence may be manifest, but it's no defense. So Paola, despite the physical and emotional strain on her and on her unborn child, has been working long days and nights through every channel she can think of to try to win Maziar's freedom.

On the diplomatic front she first turned to Canada, since Maziar was naturalized as a Canadian citizen after many years living, working, and attending film school there. But Canada's relations with Iran are poor to begin with and Iran does not recognize Maziar's Canadian nationality; its diplomats have yet to win permission for a consular officer to pay Maziar a visit.

Several different organizations—including the Committee to Protect Journalists, the Index on Censorship, PEN, and groups of documentary filmmakers—have launched petitions to free Maziar Bahari and have faxed them to the Iranian Justice Ministry or posted them on Facebook. With the help of friends and volunteers, Paola launched a Web site to keep people up to date on Maziar's condition and efforts to free him. On Monday she gave her first television interview on CNN.

The most recent petition is being circulated in Italy. Paola's mother is from Genoa, and Paola, who grew up speaking Italian as well as English, has worked through friends and contacts to gather hundreds of signatures. Historically, Rome has much friendlier relations with Tehran than most other European capitals, so she is hoping that on humanitarian grounds, Italian diplomats will be moved to help out.

But in the end, it is hard for Paola and everyone else working to free Maziar and the other prisoners to know what to do or where to turn. Maziar's 83-year-old mother in Tehran has pleaded for his release, publicly, and been rewarded with the chance to talk to him on the telephone four times, with each call no more than two minutes. A tragic figure herself, she has lost her husband, her elder son, and her daughter to natural causes over the last three years, and she now sees her son captive to a wholly unnatural fate.

In the end, the ordeal of Maziar, Paola, and all who love them will be one that requires enormous patience and bravery. Law and diplomacy are irrelevant in a time of show trials. Like the matrons on the streets of Tehran, one can only hope—without really expecting it—that those wielding the clubs that give them power in the courts as well as in the streets will come to their senses, or simply wear themselves out, and that then, somehow, the nightmare will end.

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