GENEVA, February 20, 2018 – Journalist and filmmaker Maziar Bahari, who was jailed and tortured by Iran, today addressed the main session of the 10th Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy — see quotes below.

For links to other speakers’ quotes, videos, photos, livestream, and more, click here.

On the recent protests in Iran:

  • “The most surprising aspect of these protests was not the fact that people came to the streets to demonstrate, it was that the protesters had the audacity to target Khamenei.”
  • “The leaderless protests, during which people loudly expressed what they do not want without proposing a clear alternative, can be regarded as a sign of dangerous and chaotic days ahead in Iran.”

On life in Iran:

  • “The average salary of an Iranian is around 200 US dollars per month. According to the government’s own statistics, this income is only enough to support a family of four for ten days.”
  • “Children of the cohorts of the Supreme Leader, members of the Revolutionary Guards or of various state foundations and organizations, drive Lamborghinis costing 400,000 dollars and have multi-million-dollar mansions in Toronto and London.”

On the 2009 protests:

  • “Then, one by one, different groups were murdered or forced into exile. And then the Revolution started to devour its own children. Former revolutionaries were put on trial or summarily executed.”
  • “As people silently passed by the murals of the Ayatollah their silent expressions and their disappointed looks were clear signals that the 2009 presidential election was the last chance for peaceful reforms in Iran.”
  • “We all know that the Ayatollah told people to go home and thousands of people were arrested and were subjected to physical and psychological torture. I, of course, was one of them.”


Full prepared remarks:

Yesterday, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei apologized to Iranians, and to God, for “failing to create a just society.” The apology was too little, too late. And, really, it didn’t mean anything. He’s apologized several times in the past, in order to further expand his unaccountable power — which is the main reason Iran has an unjust society today. 

The recent protests in Iran shocked Iranians and the world. And the most surprising aspect of these protests was not the fact that people came to the streets to demonstrate, it was that the protesters had the audacity to target Khamenei. This expression of anger illustrates how a dysfunctional and brutal despot has allowed corruption and cronyism to take over the country, and how he’s driving it to a very dangerous destination.  

The leaderless protests, during which people loudly expressed what they do not want without proposing a clear alternative, can be regarded as a sign of dangerous and chaotic days ahead in Iran. They can also provide us, activists, journalists and various members of civil society around the world, an opportunity to try to help Iranians by supporting non-violent and peaceful change in my country.  

Small demonstrations have become part of life in Iran. It’s no surprise that citizens of a country where more than 30% of people live below the poverty line protest against the wretched conditions of their lives. The average salary of an Iranian is around 200 US dollars per month. According to the government’s own statistics, this income is only enough to support a family of four for ten days. There are three million hard drug users in Iran. Human smuggling has become a thriving business in the country. Homelessness is a fact of life in most Iranian cities and towns.  

And in the meantime, children of the cohorts of the Supreme Leader, members of the Revolutionary Guards or of various state foundations and organizations, drive Lamborghinis costing 400,000 dollars and have multi-million-dollar mansions in Toronto and London. An average Iranian has to work and save for at least 166 years to be able to afford a Lamborghini.  

So, protests and strikes in such a country are not unusual, even though they are outlawed. But, it was shocking that Iranians around the country chanted slogans against Khamenei and burned posters of him, actions that until very recently were really not imaginable in the country. Iran has almost reached a dead-end. Citizens are demanding total change, but a recalcitrant Leader opposes any kind of reform.  

But how did we get here? When I was among the millions of Iranians marching silently through Revolution Avenue in Tehran in June 2009, I, and the other protesters, had some hope that the Ayatollah would listen to the voices of the people. It may sound foolish to expect such a thing from an authoritarian leader. But we were hoping that the Ayatollah would be interested in his legitimacy as the leader of the country, and not risk his whole regime on Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a corrupt zealot who was only interested in his interests and the interests of his small clique of former Revolutionary Guards and intelligence officials. 

Of course, we all knew that the Islamic government was founded on brutality and murder. We also knew that all of us were somehow responsible for the creation of this regime. Many of us were old enough to remember that as soon as the revolutionary government came to power in February 1979, it executed hundreds of former regime officials. There were no real trials and the Shah’s ministers, generals and soldiers were summarily executed. Images of their dead bodies appeared on Iranian state TV and on the front pages of newspapers. This mockery of justice was cheered by most groups and political parties in Iran. 

When hundreds of followers of the Baha’i faith were kidnapped and killed by the new regime in the early 1980s, almost no one objected to such atrocities.  

Most Iranians remained silent when Zoroastrians, Christians, Jews and Sunni Muslims became second-class citizens of the country.  

The majority of men, and many women, quietly accepted the forced hijab and suppression of women.  

Then, one by one, different groups were murdered or forced into exile. And then the Revolution started to devour its own children. Former revolutionaries were put on trial or summarily executed.   

The people who came to the 2009 Green Movement demonstrations were silent and introspective. They had the collective understanding that violent slogans and actions had driven Iran to a cliff, and that if that pattern of governance continued, the result would be nothing but mayhem and destruction. 

So, they genuinely thought Ayatollah Khamenei would understand this. As people silently passed by the murals of the Ayatollah their silent expressions and their disappointed looks were clear signals that the 2009 presidential election was the last chance for peaceful reforms in Iran. That the Ayatollah, for the sake of the country and his own reign, should listen to the voices of Iranians.  

It’s very important to emphasize the point that in 2009, the majority of people who demonstrated didn’t want to topple the Ayatollah or the Islamic government. They only wanted to contain his powers and the power of institutions under his control.  

Well, we all know that the Ayatollah told people to go home and thousands of people were arrested and were subjected to physical and psychological torture. I, of course, was one of them.  

Nine years later, young Iranians took to the streets across the country and chanted Death to Khamenei. Some burnt posters of him. Some torched mosques and government buildings. According to the Iranian police, the average age of those arrested during the demonstrations was between 16 and 25. This means that most of the arrested weren’t old enough to vote in 2009.  

The recent protests were staged by people who have no recollection or interest in the Revolutionary ideals of the 1970s and 80s. They are tired of being poor and being humiliated. They have no interest in gradual reforms. They believe this government cannot be reformed. They want change and they want it now.  

Unfortunately, some of them do not remember that it is violence that has driven us to this point in our history. It is our duty to support non-violent and peaceful change in Iran, to teach young Iranians the successes, or relative sustainable successes, in countries such as Serbia and Tunisia.  

One of the main slogans of the Iranian Revolution was “When the Monster Leaves, the Angel Enters,” meaning that Ayatollah Khomeini, “the angel,” would replace the monstrous Shah. Almost forty years later, we know that this was a tragic and at the same time farcical slogan. It is our duty now to teach this lesson to the new generation of young Iranians.