Burning with Conviction ; A Group of Iranian Exiles - Angered at What They See as Their Homeland's Tyranny and Fundamentalism - Have Shocked the West with the Ultimate Form of Protest. ARIFA AKBAR Talks to the Activists Who Have Decided That Martyrdom by Fire Is the Only Way for Their Voices to Be Heard
Akbar, Arifa, The Independent (London, England)
Eleven days ago, about 150 Iranian protesters gathered outside the French embassy in Knightsbridge, London. It seemed, at first, much like any other demonstration: flags were waved, drums beaten, slogans shouted. Then one protester rushed forward from the crowd, chanting. His clothes were wet, and he was carrying a cigarette lighter. One witness thought he was trying to light a cigarette. Then, still chanting, the protester set himself alight, and his petrol-soaked clothes burst into flame.
The man in question, Mohammad Vasoogh Imani, 46, is a sympathiser of the left-wing coalition group, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), and was just one among 10 Iranian exiles who have turned themselves into human torches across Europe since police raided the NCRI's office in Paris on 17 June and arrested more than 100 people. Eleven key members remain detained for suspected terrorist associations and financing, including Maryam Rajavi, the woman the group believe should be Iran's next president.
Two of these protesters became martyrs to the cause, including Neda Hassani, a 25-year-old Canadian who had been visiting London, and Sedigheh Mojaveri, a 40-year-old woman in Paris. The other eight survived but incurred horrifying injuries.
Imani suffered 35 per cent burns, which left him immobilised and bandaged from head to foot. But he has no regrets. In the burns unit at Broomfield Hospital, Essex, Imani remains impervious to his agonising condition and raises two bloodied fingers to form a victory sign.
"I was ready to be a martyr, to sacrifice myself in order to protest at the arrest of Rajavi, who to me, is a symbol of freedom against the tyranny of the Mullahs in Iran," he says. "I told no one that I was going to do it because I knew they would try to prevent me. I felt this was the way to pass on my message to my own people, to Europe and to the world."
Friends who witnessed Imani's protest hail him as a hero. One Iranian woman spoke of the "sublime spark" that entered his eyes at the point of ignition. It was as if his death-wish became transparent only in that instance, she said.
On the day he decided to set himself alight, Imani wrote an open letter to Jacques Chirac, addressing the French President with his grievances "in the last moments of my life".
Following her arrest, Rajavi made an explicit plea against self- immolation, but her followers have nothing but praise for this extreme form of protest. "Those whom we lost, we have not actually lost. They are alive in our hearts. I heard about others who had done it before I chose to do it and I admired them. I thought they were heroes. There's no doubt their actions had an impact on me," says Imani, a former political prisoner in Iran.
But what goes through the minds of those who immolate themselves in this way? How can anyone willingly condemn themselves to such agonies? And what is this organisation on whose behalf they do so?
Heshmat Zandi, the first of this wave of "human torches", is recovering from 40 per cent burns at London's Chelsea and Westminster Hospital after setting himself on fire on 18 June - also outside the French embassy. The 38-year-old mechanical engineering student from Borehamwood, Hertfordshire, echoes his comrade's readiness for death: "I did what I did consciously when I heard our leader had been arrested. I felt I had no other choice. I did not think twice; the regime and its accomplices had gone so far. They were going to sacrifice us all and I had to do something."
Two days after Zandi's televised protest in London, Ali Ghassemi, 43, a father of three sons who had fled Iran as a political refugee in 1989, was visiting Rome from Denmark when news of the Paris raid was broadcast. He went to a local petrol station to prepare for his death.
Lying in Rome's central hospital with 30 per cent burns …
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Publication information: Article title: Burning with Conviction ; A Group of Iranian Exiles - Angered at What They See as Their Homeland's Tyranny and Fundamentalism - Have Shocked the West with the Ultimate Form of Protest. ARIFA AKBAR Talks to the Activists Who Have Decided That Martyrdom by Fire Is the Only Way for Their Voices to Be Heard. Contributors: Akbar, Arifa - Author. Newspaper title: The Independent (London, England). Publication date: July 1, 2003. Page number: 4,5. © 2009 The Independent - London. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.