Imprisoned Iranian student leader Majid Tavakoli is the winner of the Student Peace Prize of 2013. The news was announced in the main library at NTNU on Friday, 21 September, 2012 – the UN’s International Day of Peace. The Student Peace Prize is awarded every other year, on behalf of all Norwegian students. The prize committee wished to acknowledge Tavakoli for his non-violent fight for freedom of speech and democracy.
“The Student Peace Price is this year awarded to a young and brave person”
Norwegian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Jonas Gahr Støre.
Punished for speaking out
Majid Tavakoli is serving a prison sentence of eight years because of a speech he held in 2009, criticizing the Iranian regime. In June of that year, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had been re-elected President; the presidential election was condemned as undemocratic by the opposition, as well as by foreign organizations and leaders. The election provoked large public demonstrations, which led the regime to mount a brutal crackdown. The winner of the Student Peace Prize is honoured with a ceremony during the student festival ISFiT (International Student Festival in Trondheim) and he will also get his own monument in Jomfrugata in Trondheim, as a part of the “Walk of Peace”. In this video of his speech at Tehran’s Amir Kabir University on December 7, 2008, Majid shared the podium with many other students – including student prisoner Bahareh Hedayat – most of whom were later arrested, many tortured and jailed, still others have since fled the country for their own safety to escape the paranoid, insecure regime in Iran, a republic supposedly born out of a student revolution that will destroy itself, by seeking to repress its own offspring. I am certain, if he was free to speak, Majid would dedicate this prize to all of them.
A large area of the video foreground has been blacked out to protect some members of the crowd who were caught on film that day.
Tavakoli studied at Amir Khabir University of Technology in Teheran, Iran, where he was a prominent leader of the student organization Islamic Students’ Association. The Student Peace Prize winner is selected for working with a focus on student rights and democratization through speeches and publications. Tavakoli was imprisoned for shorter periods of time prior to this current prison sentence, and has shown that he refuses to be scared into silence.
In December 2010, Majid Tavakoli, along with Bahareh Hedayat, issued a message on the occasion of Students Day. As a result, they both appeared in a Revolutionary Court on April 30, 2011 to face new charges of “propaganda against the regime” and “conspiring to act against national security.”
In their letter, Majid Tavakoli and Bahareh Hedayat addressed fellow activists:
“We sincerely send you our warm and heartfelt regards from the corners of our cells of injustice and cruelty. Our bodies may be wounded by the blade of tyranny, but our hearts are filled with love and burning flame of hope, and our heads are high for continuing the glorious path of freedom which has been carried away on the shoulders of the Iranian people all across the world.”
The court added a further 6 month sentence to the existing 7.5 years Majid was serving, and 6 months to to Bahareh’s existing 9.5 year sentence. Majid Tavakoli has never stopped fighting for the rights of his fellows students, even as he suffers in one of the most miserable prisons in the world. While in prison, he continued writing strongly-worded letters to the government until his family were placed under such intense pressure by the regime that he was forced to stop in order t0 protect them.
Students constitute an important group of the Iranian society and a very high percentage of young people in Iran attend colleges and universities. However, students are often deprived of their right to education on spurious grounds and many are prosecuted in response to political activity in opposition to the regime. Students who follow the Baha’i faith are forbidden access to education and many are jailed for studying or for helping others gain access to education.
“With his own life and future at stake he is fighting for a peaceful reform and progress through participation and democracy. The prize is a clear signal to the regime that the world is paying attention”
Jan Tore Sanner, deputy of the second largest political party in Norway (Høyre)
We are all Majid
The current regime in Iran is responsible for serious violations of the human rights. According to Amnesty International over 600 people were executed in 2011. Torture and imprisonment are also common methods practiced by the government. In the aftermath of the arrest, pictures of Tavakoli wearing a hijab [the traditional Islamic head covering for women] were released by the regime in an effort to undermine his popular influence; to humiliate and disgrace him.
Despite this, the pictures created a storm of attention surrounding Tavakoli and his case. Hundreds of Iranian men dressed themselves in hijabs and published pictures of themselves online, accompanied by the slogan “We are all Majid”. The winner of the Student Peace Prize thus became a symbol and a representative for Iranian students and political activists alike.
During the initial period of his detention, Majid spent nearly 6 months in a solitary cell. He was not aware of the reactions outside prison and not aware of campaigns in support of him. He told his friends that when he was in solitary, investigators showed him pictures of himself wearing chador published on websites. The investigators told him that people outside prison were making fun of him, and they even told him that his friends and peers signed a statement condemning his act. However, he told his friend and former room mate that he did not believe those lies. When he came out of solitary confinement, he was informed about the amazing campaign which had been built to support him.
A video compilation features many of the images that were posted as part of the “We Are All Majid” aka “Men in Scarves” Campaign:
The biggest fear: being forgotten
Amir Bayani works for the organization Article 19 and is familiar with Tavakoli and his work. He states: “anyone who has ever spoken to a prisoner of conscience in Iran can tell you that their biggest fear is being forgotten.”
I have never forgotten Majid; I think of him and all the other prisoners every day. I remember him on his birthday, May 22. Majid turned 26 this year and has spent the last three birthdays behind bars.