Ahmad Batebi

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In July 1999 the man on this cover of the Economist, Ahmad Batebi, was arrested by Iranian authorities. He was tortured and told he would be killed.

During his interrogation he was blindfolded and beaten with cables until he passed out. His captors rubbed salt into his wounds to wake him up, so they could torture him more. They held his head in a drain full of sewage until he inhaled it. He recalls yearning for a swift death to end the pain. He was played recordings of what he was told was his mother being tortured. His captors wanted him to betray his fellow students, to implicate them in various crimes and to say on television that the blood on that T-shirt was only red paint. He says he refused.

Last month he escaped via Iraq and is now in Washington DC. His blog is here. The Economist spoke to him last week:

Looking at the picture that sparked his ordeal, he says that another man in his place might be angry, but he is not. Mr Batebi is a photographer himself. He says he understands what journalism involves. Had we not published the picture, he says, another paper might have. Looking at the same picture, his lawyer, interpreter and friend Lily Mazahery says she is close to tears: in it, the young Mr Batebi’s pale arms are as yet unscarred by torture.

The protests Mr Batebi took part in nine years ago frightened Iran’s rulers. The students were angry about censorship, the persecution of intellectuals and the thugs who beat up any student overheard disparaging the regime. Mr Batebi thinks Iran could well turn solidly democratic some day. In neighbouring states, religious extremism is popular. In Iran, he says, the government is religiously extreme, but the people are not.

He is cagey about how exactly he escaped. But he says he used a cellphone camera to record virtually every step of his journey, and will soon go public with the pictures and his commentary. Meanwhile, he seems to be enjoying America. He praises the way “people have the opportunity to become who they want to be”. Shortly after he arrived, he posted a picture of himself in front of the Capitol on his Farsi-language blog, with the caption: “Your hands will never touch me again.”

I look forward to an account of his life and his escape.

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