Faraj Sarkuhi, Iran
By Global Journalist Staff Posted Jul 1 2000
Persecuted by the regimes of both the Shah of Iran and the Islamic Republic, Faraj Sarkuhi suffered threats and harassment by the authorities before he was finally forced into exile in 1998. Today, he lives in Germany, where he continues to campaign for greater press freedom in his native Iran.
Born Nov. 3, 1947, in Shiraz, Iran, Sarkuhi studied art, sociology and Persian literature at universities in Tabriz and Tehran. While still a student, he wrote book reviews and essays for dissident publications and joined the student movement opposing the autocratic rule of Muhammad Reza Shah Pahlavi. Sarkuhi was arrested on several occasions by the shah’s security police and sentenced to a year in jail in 1969 and 15 years in 1971. Eight years later, during the 1979 revolution incited by the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Sarkuhi was released with other political prisoners.
After his release Sarkuhi continued his work as a journalist, writer and literary critic. He co-founded the literary monthly Adineh in 1985. The defunct cultural journal, which often dealt with social issues such as the status of women in Iran, soon became the country’s leading opposition publication and was widely read both inside Iran and in the Iranian diaspora.
In 1994 Sarkuhi was one of the writers and intellectuals who signed the famous Declaration of 134 Iranian Writers, a petition calling on the Iranian government to end censorship and guarantee freedom of opinion and expression. After signing the petition, Sarkuhi, as chief editor of the most important opposition publication, became the target of a relentless campaign of harassment by the authorities, who threatened, arrested, detained and tortured him on several occasions between 1994 and 1996.
In August 1996 Sarkuhi was a guest at the home of the German cultural attaché in Tehran when intelligence agents burst into the house and arrested him and six other people. They were released the next day. He was arrested again along with 13 members of the Association of Iranian Writers in September 1996 and taken to Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison, where he was held for three days.
On Nov. 3, 1996, Sarkuhi was kidnapped at Tehran airport as he was about to board a flight to Germany, where he was due to join his wife and two children who had fled to Berlin at the end of 1995. While the authorities told the press that the editor was in Germany, Sarkuhi was held in solitary confinement and tortured in a secret prison for 48 days. On Dec. 20, following mounting pressure on the Iranian regime from abroad, Sarkuhi reappeared at a press conference at Tehran airport and denied that he had been held. It was believed to be a forced statement.
However, he was arrested again in January 1997 after smuggling out of Iran an open letter in which he described his detention and torture at the hands of the authorities. A government spokesperson said that Sarkuhi had been arrested for trying to “leave Iran illegally,” and that he would be charged with spying for a foreign country, an offense that carries the death penalty in Iran. Following international protests, he was eventually sentenced on Sept. 18, 1997, by a secret revolutionary court to a year in prison for spreading propaganda and damaging state security.
Sarkuhi was released after completing his sentence on Jan. 28, 1998, 13 months after his disappearance at Tehran airport, and finally allowed to fly to Germany on May 6, 1998. He now lives in Frankfurt, where he continues to write and speak on the situation of press freedom in Iran.
Although the press in Iran has benefited somewhat from the social and political reforms of President Mohammad Khatami, who was elected in a landslide victory in May 1997, journalists still find themselves the target of attacks from the hard-line supporters of Iran’s spiritual guide, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Sarkuhi, however, is optimistic: “The most serious difficulty facing the clerical regime that runs Iran is not the economic crisis nor the political crisis of a growing conflict between fundamentalists and reformers,” he wrote in 1999.
“The most serious challenge to the Islamic government is the change that has taken place within the minds of Iranians. A majority of the Iranian people — and not just the intelligentsia — want freedom. ... Freedom of the press, abolition of censorship and freedom of speech in Iran are now called for by one and all. A promising prospect for the written word in Iran.”