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Two human rights groups, Freedom House and Human Rights Watch, have called for the immediate release of students and others still imprisoned by the Iranian government five years after a series of pro-democracy protests.

On July 8th, 1999, the Iranian government closed a reformist newspaper, triggering a peaceful student demonstration at Tehran University. Police and plainclothes security forces raided a dormitory, beat students, and trapped many in their rooms. The protest then spread beyond the university, lasting a week. More than twenty-five thousand people throughout Iran participated in what became the largest political demonstration since the 1979 Islamic revolution. Exiled Iranian human rights activist Ladan Boroumand says the protests called the world’s attention to the Iranian people’s desire to be free from the rule of autocratic fundamentalist clerics:

“With the breakout of the demonstrations, the world could witness that there is a massive civil society that is totally discontent[ed] with this regime and is aspiring to a more democratic and secular regime. It started an important political debate about the ability of this regime to reform [and] about the importance of constitutional law in the making of a democratic regime that was totally absent before.”

In the weeks following the protests, thousands of Iranian students were arrested, taken away by the busload, and held in detention centers and prisons. Several students were sentenced to death, but the sentences were later commuted to long prison terms. While the Iranian government has released many of those initially detained, an unknown number remain imprisoned. Reportedly, many have been brutally tortured, barred from seeing their attorneys, and forced to provide confessions to Iran’s state-controlled media. Many have suffered permanent physical and psychological injuries while in detention.

Sarah Leah Whitson is executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa Division. She says, “Five years after the Tehran University protests, it’s time for the Iranian government to release the peaceful protestors. The government also needs to hold plainclothes militia accountable for the attacks on students that year.”

The U.S. agrees. The students whose only crime was to protest peacefully for freedom should be released from Iran’s prisons.