Two blacklisted students have been staging a sit-in outside the Science Ministry since Sunday, December 17. Mehdieh Golroo and Majid Dari, two students banned from a university education, are protesting against Science Minister Mansour Gholami’s denial that such a blacklist exists, or that any students are kept out of higher education for political reasons.
For the last few days, Golroo and Dari have stood outside the ministry with placards for hours. A day before they started their protest, Gholami had stated that no students were blacklisted on political grounds. When students are denied entry to educational establishments, it was because they had “incomplete dossiers,” he said [Persian link]. The same excuse for excluded students has been given for years, since toward the end of Mohammad Khatami’s presidency, though specific blacklisting has been introduced more recently.
The term used for a blacklisted student in Iran translates as “star student.” Contrary to what one might expect, this is not a badge of honor. In Iran, a “star student” is someone whom security agencies have singled out as “undesirable” because of his or her political activities. The term entered the political lingo during the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad but the practice started in 2005 with the case of Mehdi Aminizadeh, a pro-democracy student activist who was arrested four times from 2001 to 2005 and who was tortured during his last arrest. When he passed the entrance exams for a Master’s degree, he was summoned by the Intelligence Ministry, was interrogated for two hours about his political views and denied enrolment at the university.
The practice still continues, but now the science minister — one of President Rouhani’s cabinet members — has denied this reality, despite the fact that it is well known, at least to those students who are victims of the policy.
Three Stars and 10 Years in Prison
After starting his sit-in, Majid Dari said that he was taking this action to protest against the science minister’s denial. And he asked just what crime Zia Nabavi had committed that meant he had to spend 10 years in prison.
Zia Nabavi was an engineering student in the northern city of Babol when he was permanently banned from further study in 2007 after receiving three “stars” for his political activities. He was arrested in June 2009 after participating in protests following the disputed 2009 presidential election. Nabavi was charged with a variety of outlandish charges and was eventually sentenced to 10 years in prison and 74 lashes.
Mehdieh Golroo and Majid Dari were banned from studying in the early years of Ahmadinejad’s presidency in connection with their student activities. They were sentenced to prison for participating in 2009 post-election protests. Majid Dari served six years and Mehdieh Golroo served two years and four months in prison.
Denying a political blacklist existed, Gholami said that when an educational institution selects students, “political issues are not a factor.” According to the minister of science, there are a “small number” of students with “incomplete dossiers” and their cases are being resolved. This assertion goes against statements by other Iranian officials about “star” students and by those students who feature on the blacklist. They say they have received no answers to their inquiries about their situation.
In October, Zia Hashemi, the cultural deputy to the science minister, categorically denied that any “star” students still exist. He said that after Rouhani was first elected in 2013, hundreds of students protested about being banned from universities, but their problems have since been solved. “For this administration and for the faculties of the universities, this is no longer an issue,” he announced.
But on November 30, the newspaper Jame’e Farda reported that at least 150 Master’s degree and Ph.D. students had been notified that their dossiers were “incomplete” [Persian link]. Quoting an “informed source” at the science ministry, the newspaper reported that these students are on the blacklist and have been prevented from enrolling.
Stars in the Sky
“Stars belong to the sky, not in the university,” said President Rouhani two days later, on December 2, implying that he was aware of the problem [Persian link]. “Students come to university to speak freely and express their views.”
Rouhani’s science minister denies there is a problem in public, but Mahmoud Sadeghi, a vocal reformist member of the parliament and a member of its Education Committee, told the same newspaper that although no reliable numbers exist, Mansour Gholami had told lawmakers that more than 100 “star” students are currently barred from enrolling in university.
Jame’e Farda reported that some students had been able to resume their studies by signing a pledge not to engage in political or religious activities. But Sadeghi noted that the pledge offers no guarantees. “Even if they are signed willingly by the students, such pledges have no legal basis,” he said. “They deny students their freedom and civil rights that allow them to engage in lawful activities such as membership in student organizations.”
Sadeghi also talked about next steps for parliament. “The [reformist] Hope block in parliament has made a recommendation to Mr. Gholami to set up a committee to take serious steps to resolve this issue. We are also determined to pursue the matter with the Parliamentary Committee for Education.” It is not clear whether Gholami has accepted the offer.
In an article published in the newspaper Shargh on December 7, the journalist and human rights activist Emadeddin Baghi wrote that many students still contact him about being banned from universities — and their number is “much higher” than the 150 that some officials cite [Persian link].
On December 10, Mohammad Reza Badamchi, a reformist member of the parliament’s Committee on Social Affairs, condemned the blacklisting of students but claimed that all students that had been banned have now completed their enrollment and that his committee had not received any complaint from any other student. “Even if there is even one star student, we will seriously pursue that matter,” he said.
Amidst all these claims and counter-claims, no official has yet to respond to Mehdieh Golroo and Majid Dari, who continue to protest outside the Ministry of Science.
Fear of Reprisal
As the MP Sadeghi said, the science minister has confirmed to members of the parliament that the blacklist still exists — and yet publicly, he has contradicted himself. The reason is perhaps quite simple. In August 2014, a year into Rouhani’s first term, the Iranian parliament impeached Reza Faraji-Dana, Rouhani’s first science minister, in a vote led by hardliners. One of the main reasons for his impeachment was his decision to let students and professors who had been expelled from universities after the 2009 protests return to education. Hardliner MPs including Nasser Mousavi-Largani, Esmael Kosari and Zohreh Tabibzadeh accused Faraji-Dana of behaving in a “political” manner by allowing students on the blacklist to resume their studies.
In fact, creating a more tolerant atmosphere in universities and allowing blacklisted students to return was one of Hassan Rouhani’s campaign promises during the 2013 presidential election. At that time, it was reported that in the span of eight years more than a thousand students had been blacklisted. And now, more than four years later, government officials, like the science minister, boast in public that the promise has been fulfilled while admitting otherwise in confidential conversation.
Mehdieh Golroo and Majid Dari have promised to continue their protest until they receive a satisfactory answer from the Ministry of Science, defying threats that they will be arrested.
In December 2016, Golrou posted an open letter to Rouhani on Facebook, reminding him that he had not yet fulfilled his campaign promise. “From the very first days, you injected hope that our lost rights would be redeemed,” she wrote. “You emphasized a lot on improving the situation of academics and students during your presidential campaign. I remember you even once said that you would ‘resurrect the honor of universities and students.’… I was among the first people to submit a request to be reinstated. But I have lost hope along with the years of my youth.”
And since Golrou’s post a year ago, nothing has changed. “Three years after your promises, I am still banned from entering the university,” she wrote at the time. “There is still a star next to my name. I keep asking myself: Where’s the honor you promised to bring back to university students?”