By NAZILA FATHI
TEHRAN Ahmad Batebi, a student activist, ran so afoul of the government that he received a death sentence in 1997. It was never carried out, but he languished in jail until on one recent day he was given the luxury of a 20-day leave.
Things went well until, two days before he was to return to the Evin Prison to serve out his 15-year sentence, he was rearrested in November. He had met that day with the United Nations human rights envoy, Ambeyi Ligabo.
A few days later, Mr. Batebi "had a weak voice and said that he could not talk much," said his father, Mohammad Baqer Batebi, who spoke with him by phone. "He did not know where he was taken but said he was in the custody of the judiciary."
Mr. Batebi became a symbol of student struggle for democracy after his picture, which showed him raising the blood-stained T-shirt of a fallen comrade in the student demonstrations of 1997, appeared in the Western media. He was charged with rallying against the government and received the death sentence, which was later reduced to a jail term.
"There is not a second that I don't wish I was a free man," Mr. Batebi said, sipping a milkshake in a cafe here before his rearrest. "Whether I want it or not, I am in prison as a representative of the student movement, and I will have to carry this burden as honorably as I can."
The tough days in prison have shattered him. At the cafe, he pulled out of his pocket a fistful of medicine that he needs to calm his jittery nerves. He has lost teeth and has hearing problems and bad vision because of the beatings of his face.
He has bad lungs, for which he blames his cell's location in the basement next to the main sewage pipe. Most prisoners are sick because of lack of air and the harsh smell of the chemicals used to kill the smell, he said. One of his cellmates, Akbar Mohammadi, had lung surgery.
The authorities at the prison summoned him twice to carry out the death sentence. "They told me to take off my clothes and wear a white dress," he said in the interview. "Every single bone was shaking in my body, and I could hear their sound," he said about the first time he felt the rope around his neck. He was reprieved, but the next time, they kept him on the stool for two hours before they announced that the execution had been postponed.
"Before I was jailed, I thought that the stories others told about their prison experiences were exaggerated," he said, referring to prison memoirs by other activists. "But I told only one-tenth of what happened to me."
For three years now, Mr. Batebi has been able to study sociology from prison, and can take exams at Payam-e-Nour University. "The condition is that I should not speak to any of the students," he said.
His joy in prison is a Spanish guitar, which he luckily found in the cultural section of the prison and learned to play.
Prison has turned Mr. Batebi, once very religious, into a secular person. "I read many books and saw different people in jail," he said. "I learned that I have to depend on myself and no other power to survive."
Despite the common feeling of disappointment toward President Mohammad Khatami, Mr. Batebi says he owes his life to him. "Thanks to him, there were at least a couple of free newspapers to write about Ahmad Batebi and force the authorities to throw away the death sentence," he said. "I would have certainly been executed years earlier." http://www.krsi.net/news/detail.asp?NewsID=484