Maziar Bahari Nominated for Spanish Award

Maziar Bahari, the documentary filmmaker and NEWSWEEK correspondent imprisoned in Iran for the last 11 weeks, is a leading contender for the Prince of Asturias Award for Concord, one of the world's most prestigious honors.

This year there are 44 nominees, including individuals and organizations from 26 countries. Sometimes described as Spain's Nobel Peace Prize, the concord award embraces, in fact, a much wider range of candidates. Previous laureates have included Ingrid Betancourt, a politician held hostage by guerrillas in Colombia; UNICEF, the United Nations Children's Fund; Harry Potter author J. K. Rowling; and the late King Hussein of Jordan.

Nominees described in the Spanish press as frontrunners for the prize this year are the Monks of Silos, whose Gregorian chants are known around the world, and the city of Berlin 20 years after the fall of the wall. Bahari's nomination has been given public support by Nobel laureate Bishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa and former U.S. secretary of state Madeleine Albright.

The Asturias jury, which begins deliberations on Wednesday and will make its decision public on Thursday, is charged with giving the award to the candidate "whose work has made an exemplary and outstanding contribution to mutual understanding and peaceful coexistence amongst men, to the struggle against injustice, poverty, disease or ignorance, to the defense of freedom, or whose work has widened the horizons of knowledge or has been outstanding in protecting and preserving Mankind's heritage."

Before the 42-year-old Bahari was jailed in the tumultuous aftermath of Iran's elections in June, he had spent most of his career producing films that addressed precisely such concerns not only in his native Iran but also in Iraq, Africa, Europe, and Canada, where he is a naturalized citizen.

Since he was arrested at his 83-year-old mother's apartment in Tehran just after dawn on June 21, Bahari has not been allowed to see a lawyer, but has twice been pushed in front of government cameras to "confess" that he might "inadvertently" have undermined the security of the state.

What he did in fact was to work openly and with full accreditation by the Iranian government, reporting for NEWSWEEK and in his film work about the hopes and fears, courage and confusion of the Iranian people at a turning point in their nation's history. No specific charges have been made public against him, and his alleged crimes appear to consist of nothing more than reporting for foreign publications and networks. In fact, the Iranian government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad welcomed such coverage--until hundreds of thousands of people poured into the streets of Iran's cities to protest against the alleged fraud that reelected it.

The injustice of Bahari's incarceration, taken as emblematic of the repression faced by millions of Iranians and by those who insist on freedom of expression everywhere in the world, is a factor that may be taken under consideration by the Asturias jury. But his work also speaks for itself.

One of Bahari's first widely distributed movies was The Voyage of the Saint Louis, about a ship full of Jewish refugees from Europe on the eve of World War II that was turned away from the United States only to return its passengers to Europe, where many eventually died in the Holocaust. Another of his projects explored the role of music and especially of drums to heal the wounds of ethnic strife in Burundi. Among Bahari's films shot in Iran, one of the most striking is Mohammad and the Matchmaker, a documentary that follows the surprising twists and turns in the life of a former heroin addict who is HIV-positive and looking for a wife.

It's just such work that led the Harvard Film Archive to praise Bahari as representative of "a new generation of young Iranian filmmakers," one who looks inside contemporary Iranian culture to "reveal the human element behind the headlines and capture cultural truths through the lens of individual experience."

The recipient of the Prince of Asturias Award for Concord receives ¤50,000 and a sculpture designed by the great Spanish artist Joan Miró. Whether Bahari will be given his freedom by the Iranian government, however, is another question.