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On Making a Big Stink July 1, 2010

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in Iranelection, Saving the World.
Tags: , , , , ,

“Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed.” John 3:20

This post is dedicated in gratitude to all my friends on #iranelection who each day do research and write letters and construct websites and retweet news on #humanrights abuses…far too many to list, but you know who you are. Thank you…always.


When I logged into Twitter this morning, the first news item to catch my eye was an article from the New York Times. Floribert Chebeya Bahizire, a human rights activist, was murdered in Congo nearly a month ago; his killer has not yet been found but is suspected to have connections to the government.

It is with some embarrassment I must confess I had never heard of this heroic man before learning of his death this morning. Mr. Chebeya was one of those courageous and utterly essential people who very simply and quietly go about doing the right thing and speaking out against injustice, no matter what the personal cost. For years he had documented arbitrary imprisonment, torture and execution in a country where human rights violations are rampant and corruption is endemic. And in the end he had died for it.

This tragic news hung in my mind, a poignant counterpoint, as I thought back over the previous evening’s online chat with a close friend as I told her about my group’s efforts this past year on #iranelection. I mentioned the website we had constructed containing information on dozens of death-row prisoners in Iran; the Amnesty International Urgent Action items we retweeted; our sample letters urging authorities to halt impending executions and free those arbitrarily detained.

She seemed unimpressed. “And these letters stop people from being executed?” was her skeptical question. It is a challenge I have heard repeatedly over the past year – that at one point I too accepted. How naive are you, she seemed to be asking, what kind of fairy-tale world are you living in to think that repressive regimes will care what you think of their brutal atrocities?

In answer I showed her this:

…And, for some more concrete evidence, these success stories from Amnesty USA and Amnesty International UK.


The observer effect, or reactivity, is a well-known principle that experimental psychologists must account for in any study: merely the knowledge of being observed will tend to influence a person’s behavior.* Generally the subject will act more in accordance with societal norms, respond to the experimenter with “acceptable” answers or behaviour even if there is nothing “in it” for them – no possible reward or punishment attached to the outcome.

There is a reason why Mr. Chebeya was murdered. There is a reason why Iran has imprisoned and silenced dozens of human rights reporters from organizations with no political affiliation and that pose no direct threat to the ruling regime. Repressive governments do not like to have their atrocities watched, reported upon, advertised to the world. And time and again we have seen – for example, in the cases of Mohammad-Amin Valian and Maziar Bahari – such attention has led to vastly better treatment of the detainee in question and, often, their sentences being quietly overturned. Others, who are not so fortunate and have nobody to draw attention to their cases, are kept in prison under inhumane conditions or even executed. The last thing oppressors anywhere want is for us to break the silence, make a “big stink” and draw worldwide attention to their violations of human rights – which is precisely why we have to, very deliberately and continuously, go on making one.


Perhaps equally important to a political prisoner, though, is the knowledge that they are not alone: the outside world has not forgotten them, people care about their fate and are working to try to set them free. As Maziar Bahari wrote after his release from Evin, “The prisoner’s worst nightmare is the thought of being forgotten.”

This reminded me of an article posted a month ago on #iranelection (translated by our own @nchevre – thank you!!) It deserves a frequent re-reading to remind us how important our support truly is to those imprisoned and threatened by totalitarian regimes everywhere:

Let us not forget our loved ones as forgetting them is a worse fate than execution.

As always, he was interrogating me from somewhere behind me. Suddenly his mobile phone rang. After a few loud sentences he said “No, he’s still alive and kicking and sitting in front of me.” They exchanged a few more words. When his conversation was over he asked “Do you know so and so?” I responded “Yes”. He named a few more people and I said I didn’t recognize them or know who they are. He said “They were apparently together, talking and claiming that Hamze Ghalebi has been executed.” He said his friend wanted to check with him. To be honest, I’m not sure why he brought this particular subject up. I’m not even sure if the conversation he pretended to have on his cell phone was real, or yet another means to create more physiological pressure. What is interesting is that contrary to his objective, his words made me stronger and more resilient.

One of the interrogation techniques that resulted in the most pressure was their ability to make you believe that everything is over and that everyone has forgotten you. People are living their own lives. Your friends are busy and have moved on. I don’t know how to explain how painful and difficult it is to feel that you have been forgotten. It is more than difficult. No words express it accurately.

He said “A few people have talked about your execution.” I am not sure what his motivation was, but by the way he expressed himself, it became clear to me that unlike his assertion, I had obviously not been forgotten after all. I told myself, hey at least a few people were upset to hear of my execution. I hid my smile immediately so that the interrogator would not notice.

If you were to ask me “What is the most important way to help someone in prison?” I would respond “Make sure that their family stands with them and after that, make sure that they are never forgotten.” This in my opinion is even more important than working towards their release from prison. I believe that this is our minimum obligation to our imprisoned friends. It is our duty to make sure that their family is not alone and that they are never forgotten.

Keeping alive memories that have been imprisoned because of personal beliefs or politics is not just a moral obligation, but also has social and political consequences. By keeping the memories of an individual alive in our collective memories, we give a social significance to their action and their sacrifice. Every symbol, sign, phrase or message will demonstrate that those outside prison are still aware and as such enable the prisoner to further resist suppression. The more we remember, the taller they will stand and the louder they will speak. That is why keeping their memories alive and speaking about loved ones is one of the most important ways we can continue our resistance and fight against tyranny.

Keeping the memories of those who have suffered alive in our collective consciousness will allow us to build upon our experience and avoid mistakes. We must make sure that we never forget the suffering, that we keep it alive in our minds, that we remind ourselves every day so that it becomes an alarm in our ears, helping us to avoid mistakes that result from forgetting the past.

Written by Hamze Ghalebi (original post in Persian)


…When we act and speak out for victims of repression and violence in Iran or anywhere in our world, it does make a difference – more, perhaps, than we will ever know.

Thank you all for reading, and caring.

– The Contrapuntal Platypus


*Interestingly, the “observer effect” is not confined to psychology but is a recurring motif throughout all branches of science. The strangest example is perhaps quantum mechanics, in which particles will literally behave differently when they are being observed (as in the double-slit experiment). But this really deserves a separate post of its own… 😀



1. sp4rrowh4wk - July 3, 2010

what a wonderful & profoundly simple way to stymie a regime of oppression: maintain awareness, keep talking, do not forget. in short- shine a light. it is ever true that evil & those who do evil cannot stand the light. Contrapuntal platypus is correct and i applaud their efforts to continue shining this light of scrutiny & of investigation & of awareness which exposes tyranny & injustice to the world. in this way we can all do some small yet vastly important part to ensure the downfall of repressive regimes, for by their own efforts will these regimes be undone.

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