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Thousands gather in silence to hear cries from Iran

VANCOUVER - Members and supporters of the local Iranian-Canadian community have stood on the steps of the Vancouver Art Gallery for the last ten nights, in solidarity with the ongoing unrest in Tehran.

Last night's final demonstration attracted thousands of demonstrators and political notables including federal Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff.

Between 2500 and 3000 demonstrators have been showing up each night, says Arta, a local organizer who asks that his last name not be used for fear of reprisal against his family in Iran.

“The only reason we get so many people,” he says, “is because we are not standing politically, we are not making decisions for the people of Iran, we are standing silently to let their voices be heard.”

On West Georgia Street, demonstrators assemble between 9:30 and 10:00 p.m., the time of night when the people of Tehran climb to their rooftops and chant against the recent election results and the violent repression of protest that followed.

In Vancouver, the demonstrators' silence represents their desire for the voices of those screaming in the streets of the Iranian capital to be heard by their government and around the world.

The unrest follows the tenth Iranian Presidential election of June 12, in which official results declared the incumbent president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad the winner with 63 per cent of the vote over opposition leader, Mir Hossein Mousavi with 33 per cent.

Initially the protests in Iran were a reaction to allegedly fraudulent election results. “But the tone has changed,” says Arta.

Now the uprising is also targeting the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Some are calling for his death and death to the Islamic Republic, but more moderate opinions, like Arta’s, are asking for an end to the violence, and for a government that is responsive to the voice and the will of the people.

The Iranian Revolution of 1978-9 ended the monarchical reign in Iran. Only a few years later, after political stagnation between the Prime Minister and the government, Ayatollah Ruhollah Kohamni was installed as the first Supreme Leader, with absolute rule over the democratic functions of the country in the new Islamic Republic.

“With respect to the people of Iran, the protests signify a very important change,” says Massoume Price. Price, an Iranian-Canadian author and social anthropologist who writes on Iranian culture, left Iran in 1981, following the Islamic Revolution.

“It could be very bad,” she says, “if the government becomes more militant and more repressive. But the positive is that Iranians are united for the first time,” which she considers the beginning of a global movement.

Arta, a 23-year-old Engineering major at UBC, came to Vancouver with his family five years ago. While Arta has been away from Iran during Ahmadinejad’s presidency, his friends in the country have told him of worsening situations and stricter government.

He agrees with the 83 per cent of Canadians who – when asked in a recent Angus Reid poll – said that elections in Iran are not generally free and fair.

“It would be rare,” says Arta, “the government has so much to lose”.

Before the election Arta considered Iran a democracy, but not anymore. Although careful in his choice of words, Arta says, “while unofficial, when there are enough Basij [Iranian security forces] in the streets, then we should call it martial law”.

So far, Canadian officials have voiced condemnation of the violence in Tehran, but show no signs of direct intervention, a position which Arta supports.

“We don’t want any more reasons for them to kill any more people in Iran,” he says, “just politically restrict the official government. Until all other possibilities are exhausted, we hope this will be solved through the constitution.”

“People are looking for leadership within the legal lines,” says Price. “We want to keep pressure on the Iranian government. It works, we’ve seen that through international pressure,” she says, referring to the recent release of Iranian American journalist, Roxana Saberi.

Possibilities for a resolution in Iran remain unclear. “Of course, people just want something better,” says Arta. “People are tired, and hoping for an end to the violence”.

Kate Dubensky is a Vancouver-based writer.

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