Young victims of Iran's thought police

University students are a dynamic component of the post-election opposition movement, and the authorities are even monitoring their school work.

TEHRAN // Ali Kheradnejad, an unassuming graduate student, was on his way to a demonstration in Tehran on July 9 when his group was suddenly attacked by security forces. "They grabbed my hair and pepper-sprayed me in the eyes. Seven or eight people were hitting me with batons."

His assailants, uniformed and plain-clothes security forces, bundled him into a van and whisked him off to a police station, where he was beaten again, once while packed with 20 others in a cage-like enclosure. Mr Kheradnejad, 31, was stunned by his experience. He and his friends had behaved peacefully. None wore green, the opposition's signature colour. Not particularly political, they simply wanted to mark the anniversary of an attack in 1999 by hardline Islamic vigilantes on a Tehran University dormitory in which one student was killed and dozens injured.

"That event broke all our hearts," Mr Kheradnejad, who now lives in London, said in an interview. The dormitory raid ignited several days of widespread student unrest that, until the huge protests spawned by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's disputed re-election as president last summer, represented the regime's greatest challenge since the early days of the 1979 Islamic revolution. University students are among the most dynamic components of the post-election opposition movement, and the authorities have cracked down hard on them.

"It is clear why students are being targeted: they are the leaders of tomorrow, some the leaders of today," said Drewery Dyke, an Iran expert at Amnesty International. Farideh Farhi, a leading authority at the University of Hawaii, said: "Many current officials remember their own student days and the role they played in challenging the role of the monarchy." The authorities underscored their deep-rooted fear of student activism by warning that anyone rallying on the July 9 anniversary would be "smashed". Those who ventured out took an immense risk. Weeks earlier, up to five students were reported to have been killed when plain-clothed forces stormed a Tehran University dormitory, an attack that echoed the one a decade earlier.

Since June, thousands of students have been arrested and more than 100 remain in detention, human rights groups say. Some have been sentenced to jail terms of up to 15 years. The international spotlight is currently on a student activist, Mohammad-Amin Valian, 20, who was arrested during protests marking a hallowed Shia day of mourning late in December. Opposition websites reported last week that an appeals court had confirmed his death sentence for "moharebeh" - waging war against God - a charge he robustly rejected. Yesterday, however, Tehran's prosecutor, Abbas Jafari Dolatabadi, denied the claims, insisting Valian still has until Saturday to appeal.

Human rights groups hope his death sentence will be commuted because of international and local pressure. Washington on Friday urged Iran to free Valian immediately, calling his "disproportionate punishment deplorable". Valian is said to have confessed at his trial to lobbing stones at security forces - without hitting any - as they "savagely" beat demonstrators. Senior Iranian clerics are understood to have urged grand ayatollahs to intercede his behalf. Valian was an active supporter of Mir Hossein Mousavi, the opposition leader whom many Iranians believe was the real winner of June's elections.

After a similar outcry, none of students sentenced to death after the 1999 unrest was executed. Iran has executed two men ostensibly in connection with post-election unrest, although both, alleged to be members of an outlawed monarchist group, were arrested before the June vote. At least nine other people have been sentenced to death. Valian, if hanged, would be the first post-election protester to be executed.

Students have been among the most vociferous critics of Mr Ahmadinejad. In 2006, a year after he took office, some students noticed a star on their test results. Dismayed, they discovered the symbol did not signify academic prowess, but was a warning from the intelligence services that they were considered a threat. Those with one star can continue their studies if they pledge in writing to abandon political activity. Two stars mean a term's suspension, three stars total banishment from further education.

The numbers of "starred" students - many with excellent academic records - has leapt since June. Starred students who launched their own rights group have been especially targeted. At least three members of the group who are women are in detention. The group's spokesman, Zia Nabavi, arrested in June, was recently sentenced to 15 years in jail and 74 lashes. Many students, such as Mr Kheradnejad who was never "starred", became politically involved only after June's election. He said he was horrified by what he witnessed in detention. He saw one young man kicked in the groin so hard that his testicles were crushed. In the same police station, Mr Kheradnejad saw another young man bleeding heavily from a head wound, one foot broken, and barely conscious.

Only later did he discover the man's identity and fate. As he left Tehran's notorious Evin prison, where he spent 10 of his 12 days in detention, he was approached by a tearful young woman desperate for news about a student, Amir Javadifar, 25, who went missing on July 9. The photograph on her mobile appeared familiar but, deeply traumatised, Mr Kheradnejad could not identify him. By the time he remembered it was the man he had seen bleeding from the head, he dared not phone the woman because he had been warned his calls would be monitored.

Last August, Mr Kheradnejad fled to Britain and promptly phoned the woman, only to discover that Mr Javadifar had died in captivity. His family did not know where he was until they were given his body in late July. Mr Javadifar's death prompted Mr Kheradnejad to speak out. "I felt I had to tell the truth and the world must know about it," he said. He knew that doing so meant he cannot return to Iran under the current regime.

Mr Kheradnejad was highlighted in Amnesty International's highly critical report on Iran in December. The organisation viewed him as an Iranian "Everyman", representative of so many Iranians who are unexceptional but brave, seeking to "do what is right".