Prisoners

Behind Prison Walls: Veteran Bus Drivers' Unionist Blocked from Contact with Family

August 15, 2022
Javad Motevali
8 min read
Reza Shahabi is a founding member of the Tehran and Suburbs Bus Company's revived Workers' Union
Reza Shahabi is a founding member of the Tehran and Suburbs Bus Company's revived Workers' Union
In May Shahabi and several colleagues were arrested for "espionage" after they met with Cecile Kohler and Jacques Paris, two educators visiting from France
In May Shahabi and several colleagues were arrested for "espionage" after they met with Cecile Kohler and Jacques Paris, two educators visiting from France
The 49-year-old has multiple health conditions, is on hunger strike and has been repeatedly denied contact with his family
The 49-year-old has multiple health conditions, is on hunger strike and has been repeatedly denied contact with his family

“We had a very perfectly meeting with the two French teachers. We didn’t talk about anything apart from union issues. Do we have access to classified material? Is that why you’re putting me under this much pressure? If you have ‘other evidence’ as you say, well then, bring it to court. I was involved in nothing but union matters.”

Reza Shahabi, 49, is a driver for Tehran and Suburbs Bus Company (TSBC) and a labor activist. He had already served one long prison sentence when he was rearrested on May 12 together with a number of colleagues after they met with Cecile Kohler and Jacques Paris, two trade unionists visiting from France.

All the detainees were charged with spying. In the first phone call he was allowed to place to his family, he relayed the above response he had given to his interrogators. He has since gone on hunger strike, and has told them frankly: “I entered the prison upright. I’ll leave prison horizontally.”

 

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Reza Shahabi is a member of the TSBC Workers Union’s Executive Committee. After his arrest on May 12 he was placed in solitary confinement on Ward 209 of Evin Prison, where he remains to this day. His hunger strike began on June 13.

His relatives and those of the other unionists were repeatedly turned away from Evin Prison and Evin Courthouse when they tried to visit. Several had been due to attend on July 7, and were told to expect a call if the schedule changed. But on the day, prison officials simply told them the examining magistrate was on leave, and to try again later.

On July 25, after persistent follow-ups, Shahabi’s family were finally allowed to see him face to face. “He’d lost half his body weight,” one told IranWire. “At first we couldn’t even recognize him. He was extremely physically weak and his face was drained of all color. This was Reza’s first meeting with the family after he started the strike, but since then, we’ve been granted no further contact – not even on the phone.”

Shahabi had been detained before in connection with his advocacy work, and been beaten and tortured. One episode saw him so badly beaten he needed spinal surgery. He also suffers from abnormal blood pressure and numbness to the left side of his body; a doctor’s note states he can only drink warm liquids or his stomach might hemmorhage. The TSBC’s Workers Union is now demanding he be hospitalized off the prison grounds.

 

Shahabi’s Response to Charges against Him

On May 11, Iran’s Intelligence Ministry announced that two Europeans had been arrested, accusing them of fomenting and taking part in this year’s Iranian teachers’ strikes. The detainees were Cecile Kohler, 37, and her husband Jacques Paris, 69. Kohler is a member of France’s National Federation of Education, Culture and Vocational Training (FNEC-FP FO) and Paris, 69, was formerly secretary general of the union’s colleges and high schools division (SNFOLC).

A week after the announcement, Iranian state-controlled media outlets reported that these two “spies” had established an "organized and coordinated" network to provoke unionists into expanding their activities. Pictures of their meeting for lunch with Reza Shahabi and other activists were used in an accompanying TV propaganda broadcast.

“This meeting took place in public,” Shahabi told his family in his first phone call after his arrest. “It was standard-issue communication between unions in different countries. It didn’t last longer than two hours, and the discussion was all about unions, and matters related to unions.”

His interrogator at Evin, he said, had tried to tell him that his own organization was illegal: “I don’t accept this and I never have. For years now I’ve had to tell interrogators that union activities are not illegal. Iran is a member of the International Labor Organization.”

Transcripts from Shahabi’s questioning sessions since now run to 180 pages. Despite this and his poor physical health, Shahabi told his family, he had so far refused to sign any “confessions” against himself. “The interrogator is always trying to force me into it,” he said. “He’s warned me that I should expect a long senence.”

 

Behind the Security Charges

For its part, TSBC’s Workers Union has described the new offensive by security agencies as a “sycophantic service” to former directors of the Tehran and Suburbs Bus Company, whom it called a “military-security mafia” who had plundered “billions of tomans” from the firm’s Cooperative Housing Fund.

The case lay dormant for many years before recently being reopened, in no small part due to efforts by Reza Shahabi, Hassan Saeedi and several other unionists over around 24 months. Saeedi was also detained on May 18 and is now also on hunger strike. The union has pointed out that being in jail prevents them from continuing to pursue the case.

 

Global and Local Solidarity

On August 2, a Twitter storm under the hashtag “Imprisoned teachers and imprisoned workers must be freed” was launched by the Coordination Council of Iranian Educators’ Unions, backed by the International Transport Workers' Federation (ITF) and Education International (EI), a 401-member umbrella group covering 172 countries.

Since May, Shahabi and Saeedi’s own union has issued a number of statements in support of them. Meanwhile in an open letter on June 29, the families of the detained labor rights activists condemned their arrests and the pressure they were under: “Where else in the world would a group of reputable, hardworking teachers, and workers who committed no crime – have not shot young people in the streets, have not deprived people of their rights, have not embezzled, have not stolen people’s properties, have not robbed the treasury and have not brought down people’s homes over their heads – be persecuted in this way?”

Five French trade unions, the Confédération Française Démocratique du Travail (CFDT), Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT), Fédération Syndicale Unitaire (FSU), Union Syndicale Solidaires (Solidaires) and Union Nationale des Syndicats Autonomes (UNSA), have also expressed alarm at the hunger strikes and withheld contact. They called on international bodies to step in and push for their immediate release.

 

Reza Shahabi: A Life of Activism Regularly Interrupted by Jail

Reza Shahabi grew up in the city of Shabestar in the province of East Azerbaijan. He began work while still at school to support his family, and started working as a driver for Tehran Bus Company before graduating from high school.

Like other unionists in Iran, he grew exasperated with the Workers’ House. This body, which is supposed promotes the interests of workers across the country, has under the Islamic Republic become a force for stifling labor movements rather than protecting them.

In 1991, the Workers’ House organized a specialized “Islamic Labor Council of Tehran Bus Company” to defend the rights of the company’s drivers and workers. But, according to the TSBC’s Workers Union, not only was the council ineffective but it actually acted as an obstacle to the fulfilment of their demands.

In 2004, Reza Shahabi, Mansour Osanloo and Ebrahim Madadi, assisted by the Founding Board of Labor Unions, resurrected the TSBC’s Workers Union 27 years after its activities were banned by the regime. The founding charter was based on the constitution of International Labor Organization.

In 2005, Shahabi was elected onto the union’s Executive Committee. After the union started its activities, its members were subjected to repeated threats and when they balloted for their first strike, several committee members were arrested. That December Shahabi and others went on strike to protest the detentions. As a result he, too, was arrested and held for several days.

After another strike on January 28, 2006, Reza Shahabi and a number of other drivers were sacked. They repeatedly complained to the Ministry of Labor, demanding to be reinstated, to no avail. Shahabi went on to study law, driving a gypsy cap to make ends meet, and continuing his union activities.

In 2009, a government commission responsible for investigating administrative violations, reinstated Shahabi in his former role with the Tehran Bus Company, plus back-pay. But the following June he was arrested at work and taken to Evin Prison. For eight months he was interrogated and pushed to confess to working with opposition groups to “bring down the Islamic Republic”.

On May 25, 2011, the notorious “judge” Abolghasem Salavati sentenced Shahabi to one year in prison for “propaganda against the regime” and five years for “conspiracy to act against national security”. He was also ordered to return the wages that he had received for the period he had been unemployed.

Shahabi spent 22 months in prison waiting for a verdict from the Court of Appeal. He went on hunger strike several times during that period. Finally on April 14, 2012, his sentence was reduced to four years – but with a new, five-year ban on union activities.

While Shahabi was in detention, his mother died of heart disease. He was not granted leave to attend the burial. In late 2012 he received temporary medical furlough after going on hunger strike for 23 days, and to Imam Khomeini Hospital for back surgery. In the latter case, officials changed their minds and he was taken back to prison in the middle of the night untreated.

In a separate case that became known as Evin’s “Black Thursday”, Judge Ahmadzadeh of Branch 26 of Tehran Revolutionary Court sentenced Shahabi to an additional year and 91 days in prison. Finally he and several others were rearrested for taking part in a May Day parade in 2019.

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