A brave and good man is dying. Ayatollah Hossein Kazemeini Boroujerdi is incarcerated in Tehran’s infamous Evin prison, as he has been since 2006. He is routinely tortured, denied medication for his grave ailments (including heart disease), and under 24-hour surveillance by officers of the Intelligence Ministry. This sort of treatment is reserved for Iranians judged to be a serious threat to the tyrannical Iranian regime.
Ayatollah Boroujerdi threatens the regime for two reasons: he advocates toleration of all religious (and non-religious) beliefs, and, in keeping with Shi’ite tradition, opposes the involvement of religious leaders in politics. Years ago, he said “the regime is adamant that either people adhere to political Islam or be jailed, exiled or killed. Its behavior is no different from that of Osama bin Laden or Mullah Omar.”
He has repeatedly criticized the fundamentalist doctrines of the Iranian theocratic state, and has dramatically spoken about the most explosive issues in the Muslim world, including anti-semitism. In 2010 he sent Hanukkah greetings to the Jews of the world, saying “any religious belief that brings us closer to the Source (God) is the truth. This force will lead humanity towards enlightenment. On this great day, we celebrate the unity among the believers of God’s light.”
The regime has not executed him, fearing public protest. He remains one of the most revered men in Iran. At the time of his arrest, he operated a hundred telephone lines to assure ongoing contact with his followers and allies, and his public meetings were so well attended that he was forced to hold them in a public stadium. The regime would undoubtedly prefer that he die in prison, so they could claim he succumbed to medical problems.
According to his family and supporters, Ayatollah Boroujerdi is indeed in critical condition. In the past, prisoners in death camps have been treated better if their captors were aware of widespread attention and concern. Even in the Nazi death camps, inmates slated for execution did better if they regularly received letters and packages (the Danes were particularly good at organizing such campaigns), and if their names were on requests for clemency from foreign governments to the officials of the Reich.
The popular press is full of upbeat forecasts about the new Iranian president, and more than a hundred congresspeople have called for greater open-mindedness in American negotiations with Tehran. We should have learned by now that a state’s treatment of its own citizens is a reliable guide to its international behavior. The treatment of men and women like Ayatollah Boroujerdi gives us a grim picture of Iran’s global ambitions. Those who want the West to so largesse to Iran should call for greater largesse from the regime towards its own people. Boroujerdi is a good place to start.
Our negotiators should go to the next round of talks with an appeal for the release of Ayatollah Boroujerdi, an appeal that should be reinforced at the United Nations by Samantha Power (who has often campaigned on behalf of oppressed peoples).
Meanwhile, we should all write to our elected and appointed officials–anywhere in the world–asking them to publicly appeal for Boroujerdi’s release. It’s both the right thing to do, and a useful test of the intentions of the new Iranian government.