Prominent Iranian journalist and political activist Isa Saharkhiz was arrested on 2 November 2015 for ‘insulting the Supreme Leader’ and ‘propaganda against the regime’. He was previously incarcerated for four years on similar charges in 2009, after he denounced that year’s presidential election results, in which Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was re-elected, as fraudulent. What lay behind his arrests on both occasions, however, was his open criticism of the Islamic Republic. There are now serious concerns for his health. Although he suffers from several ailments, prison authorities refuse him access to the medical treatment required to improve his poor physical state.
Saharkhiz was born in 1953, in the southwestern city of Abadan. His family moved to Karaj, near the capital Tehran, when he was six. During the early years of the Iranian revolution, he exhibited the kind of fervour that was associated with a deep commitment to the principles of the newly established Islamic Republic. An economics graduate of Tehran University, he was active in the Jahad-e Sazandegi (Construction Crusade), an organization that was established after the revolution to promote development, for three years until 1982, when he moved to the country’s official news agency, IRNA, as a reporter and economics expert. He also reported on the Iran-Iraq war, on many an occasion directly from the frontline over prolonged periods of time. Upon the resignation of Mohammad Khatami, then Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance, in 1992, Saharkhiz moved to the United States to run IRNA’s office in New York, a position he held for five years.
In 1997, Khatami was elected as the new president, in a landslide victory. Under the newly appointed Minister of Culture, Ataollah Mohajerani, then known for his liberal views and now living in exile in London, Isa was chosen as the director for domestic publications. The backlash by the hardline judiciary, however, led to the closure of many publications including Zan (woman), under the management of Faezeh Hashemi Rafsanjani, in 1999. Saharkhiz resigned in protest and founded the daily Akhbar-e Eghtesad. The newspaper published critical pieces on the Iranian economy and its management.
The most serious brush with the establishment came in the wake of the 2009 presidential elections, when Ahmadinejad was declared the winner but the reformists considered the results rigged. In the crackdown that followed, Saharkhiz was arrested and imprisoned by security and intelligence officials. He was sentenced to a total of four years for what was in principle the exercise of his right to free speech. Released in October 2013, the former IRNA reporter continued his criticism of the Iranian regime and was subsequently arrested again in 2015.
Among Saharkhiz’s notable accomplishments is his cofounding of the Association for the Defence of Press Freedom in Iran, an organization whose work is frowned upon by the Iranian authorities. His editorial career extended to Aftab (sun) magazine as well as the daily Akhbar-e Eghtesad, whose licenses were revoked in 2004 and 2005 respectively.
Married and the father of two children, the eldest who lives in the United States, the younger who has remained in Iran, Saharkhiz is not afraid to stand up to authorities. When representing the Iranian press in 2004, at a meeting that included Gholam Hossein Ejeyee, a hardline cleric, his robust stand on individual freedoms reportedly led to the cleric throwing a small plate at him and biting his left shoulder. This is, of course, negligible compared to his treatment at the hands of prison authorities. He recalls: “On a cold night – it was -6 degrees Celsius – I was taken to the rooftop of cellblock 209 without any warm clothes, shoes or socks. This punishment led to serious medical problems for me, including liver and lung trouble, which I still suffer from.”
Saharkhiz is an outspoken critic of the policies of the Islamic Republic. Dubbed a reformist, he is now caught up in the escalating factional in-fighting that has the hardliners targeting all political and intellectual leaders opposed to them, some of whom, strangely enough, like political dissident Dr Mehdi Khazali, have consistently been among the most ardent supporters of religious government. It is doubtful that Saharkhiz will bow to the hardliners. However, in the increasingly complex and dangerous labyrinth of Iranian politics, party divisions are gradually fading (an increasingly prevalent view is that the reformists’ main agenda is regaining power for its privileges and has little if anything to do with people’s interests), as public disappointment with the reformists gives way to a desire for radical change. The growing number of high-profile dissenters, including Saharkhiz, Khazali and activist Mohammad Nourizad, are vocalizing that desire.