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Iran targets trade unionists as defiance grows

On May Day, in Sanandaj, Kordestan Province, north-west Iran, scores of workers – men and women – gathered and chanted, “We are workers; we are hungry.” Security forces quickly arrived and dispersed the crowd. At least eight workers were arrested, their fate unknown.

While trade unionists around the world gathered and marched on the streets, in Iran workers were denied permits to hold rallies in public in cities across the country on May 1. In Tehran, workers had to gather in a gymnasium.

The pathological fear of the reactionary, authoritarian Iranian regime of independent trade unionism is nowhere more viciously demonstrated than in the treatment of Reza Shahabi, the treasurer of the Union of Workers of the Tehran and Suburbs Bus Company.

He has been detained in Evin Prison in Tehran, since June 2010 and given a six-year jail sentence on vague charges. He is in poor health after numerous hunger strikes and it is doubtful whether he is receiving all necessary medical treatment.

Reza Shahabi has also been fined 70 million rial ($5,700) and banned from all trade union activities for five years. According to his lawyer, the prosecution is seeking to bring a fresh charge of “enmity against God” for alleged contact with the People's Mojahedin Organisation of Iran (PMOI), a banned opposition group.

The Tehran bus union was banned after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Workers resumed the union's activities in 2004, although it is not legally recognised. In December 2005, police arrested 12 of the union’s leaders at their homes. Other members were arrested on 25 December 2005 after they went on strike to call for the release of their colleagues. Hundreds more were arrested during a further strike.

The deputy head of the union, Ebrahim Madadi, was released from Evin Prison only last month after completing a three-and-a-half-year sentence for his alleged activities “against national security”.

Amnesty International believes that Reza Shahabi has been convicted solely for his peaceful trade union work, and has adopted him as a prisoner of conscience. The Trades Union Congress in Britain is backing an international campaign for his release.

Other trade unionists have been arrested or harassed recently in Iran. On or about 24 April 2012, trade unionist Zabihollah Bagheri was arrested on his way out of the Moharakeh Steel Plant in Esfahan, central Iran, by three plain-clothed officials. His current whereabouts are unknown.

Members of the Haft Tapeh Sugar Cane Company (HTSCC) union, which is also not recognised by the government, have come under attack. Rasoul Bodaghi, a member of the Tehran Teachers’ Trade Association, arrested in September 2009, is serving six years in prison for “spreading propaganda against the system” and “gathering and colluding against national security”.  

The background to the repression is a deteriorating economy. Sanctions have taken their toll but the moves to end subsidies on fuel and food that began last year have led to soaring inflation and mounting anger on the streets.

Earlier this month, an Iranian parliamentary committee rejected the second phase of the subsidy “reform” programme which requires massive cuts in public spending (sounds familiar).

Prices have spiralled since the subsidies were first reduced, causing serious financial problems for millions of people across the country. The price of petrol has risen three-fold and the cost of gas has soared by 500%. The value of Iran’s currency, the rial, has declined steeply, the employment rate is about 15% and inflation is running at nearly 20%, with food price inflation exceeding 50%.  
Activists inside Iran are forecasting a long, hot summer as resistance to the regime grows across society.

Paul Feldman
Communications editor
14 May 2012

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