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EDUCATION-IRAN: Ahmadinejad Flunks on Teachers&#39 Strike

Kimia Sanati

TEHRAN, Apr 18 2007 (IPS) - An attempt to suppress a prolonged teachers&#39 agitation against low wages, through intimidation and mass arrests, may result in the impeachment of education minister Mahmoud Farshidi, a key member of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad&#39s cabinet.

According to the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA), 138 members of the 190-member parliament, cutting across party affiliations, have now signed a motion to have Farshidi impeached.

The impeachment motion followed Monday&#39s arrest of Ali Akbar Baghani, general secretary of the Iran Teachers&#39 Association and a strike, on Tuesday, resulting in the closure of an estimated 80 percent of Iran&#39s public schools.

Baghani was picked up from his classroom in a school located in the capital, by three plainclothesmen as he was conducting an exam for his students. School authorities were not informed when the agents entered the classroom, produced an arrest warrant and whisked him away as the students watched, Iranian Labour News Agency (ILNA) reported.

Six more members of the directors&#39 board of the teachers&#39 association, who were detained last week for their role in organising protest rallies in front of the Iranian parliament in early March, are now being held in Tehran&#39s Evin prison.

The teachers&#39 unrest began in early February when government promises to raise teachers&#39 salaries and benefits, which are low compared to those of other civil servants, failed to materialise. Ahmadinejad came to power in June 2005 on a promise to plough Iran&#39s vast oil revenues into &#39&#39putting food on the tables&#39&#39 of Iranians.

"What hurts teachers most is the inequality. We only want to be paid like other government employees, to get better housing allowance and insurance. There was a secret deal between the parliament and the government to postpone the passing of the bill till after the budget for the current fiscal year (Mar. 21, 2007-Mar. 20, 2008) is passed by the house. This way, they wouldn&#39t have to deal with the problem for another year," one of the protesting teachers told IPS on Mar. 15, asking to remain anonymous.

"What they do not consider is that now that all hopes are gone, at least for the next one year, many more (protests) are sure to follow suit. There are hundreds of thousands of us and our families and we are everywhere, even in the smallest villages. We have the power to bring the whole educational system to a standstill. This scares them badly and I hope they won&#39t resort to irrational measures to silence us," she added.

At a rally on Feb. 4 in front of the parliament teachers threatened to go on strike and bring schools to closure from late February if a government bill to make their wages equal to those of other civil servants did not pass the house. The bill in question, later passed by parliament but rejected by the Council of Guardians, a higher body with the power to overturn parliament decisions, was left out from the next Iranian fiscal year&#39s budget bill.

Since their Feb. 20 deadline passed, teachers of many public schools in the capital and a number of other cities have refused to teach and some district schools were closed before the Iranian new year holidays in March.

"We did go to school but we just sat in the teachers&#39 room and refused to go to classes. Our pay is ridiculously low. A schoolteacher with a master&#39s degree receives less than 300 US dollars after taxes and insurance are deducted. In a city like Tehran, where any family of four with an income less than 500 dollars a month is living under the poverty line. &#39&#39Our families are suffering," a middle-school teacher, who drives a cab in the evenings, told IPS.

At least a 100 protesting teachers, some of them recently detained association leaders, were arrested Mar. 14 in front of the parliament where several hundred riot police and military forces violently assaulted and dispersed crowds.

Families of the arrested teachers then rallied in front of Tehran Revolutionary Court on Mar. 17 demanding immediate release of the detained teachers. Prison officials refused to accept medicine for the detainees, a family member of one of the detained teachers said adding that he was trying to reach medicine to a teacher who was a veteran of the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988) and a chemical weapons victim.

"Families are deprived of any information and in some cases have no knowledge of the whereabouts of the arrested individuals. In most cases the detainees have not been able to contact their families at all," an open protest letter written by the families to Ahmadinejad said. The letter demanded the release of the detainees and punishment of those responsible for their arrest.

The protest rally was staged a day after a planned meeting by leaders of teachers&#39 associations and parliamentarians with education ministry officials turned out instead to be a meeting with intelligence and security officials and failed to achieve any results.

On Apr. 7, after the long Iranian new year holiday that provided some respite to the government, security forces arrested 33 teachers in Hamadan city at a teachers&#39 association meeting and 12 more from their homes. A number of the detained teachers were later released on bail.

Following the arrests, a judiciary spokesman told the press the teachers&#39 association of Hamadan had been banned by the government and the teachers had been arrested for illegally continuing association activities. More teachers were arrested in other Iranian cities and towns of Kurdistan, Tehran, Isfahan and West Azarbaijan provinces since then.

"The government&#39s banning of the Hamadan teachers&#39 association and the arrest of its members demonstrate Iran&#39s flagrant disregard for its own laws and its obligations under international human rights law," Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director of the Washington-based Human Rights Watch said, in a statement released Mar. 13.

Minister Farshidi&#39s staunch denial of any knowledge of the arrests of the protesting teachers at a press conference held on Mar. 14, the same day the arrests were made, greatly angered protesting teachers. Farshidi later alleged that the rallies were plots to "agitate the society" and "smear the image of the system", ILNA reported.

If impeached and dismissed, Farshidi will be the first member of Ahmadinejad&#39s cabinet to get the sack.

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