Nobody would’ve believed that a character like him could ever exist.
Mansour Osanlou, an Amnesty International prisoner of conscience, was imprisoned by the Iranian regime for almost five years and suffered horrific torture. His teeth were broken, his face slashed (the scar is visible), and he was subjected to so many beatings on his head that his vision is still damaged.
“They put me in solitary confinement,” Osanlou says. “They chained my feet and hands to the heater. Sometimes, just out of spite, they used to kick the chair out from under me while I was in chains.”
Amnesty International brought Osanlou to Madison this week to speak at the University of Wisconsin. I met him in the lobby of his hotel, and with the translation help of Amnesty’s local coordinator, whose roots are also in Iran, we talked about his life and work.
Osanlou was one of Iran’s most prominent labor activists, heading the union of transportation workers in the Tehran area. The Iranian regime saw his organizing as a dire threat. The ill-treatment it meted out to Osanlou was a signal not just to trade unionists but to all Iranian activists yearning to transform their society.
“The Iranian government wants to maintain its economic and social control,” Osanlou says. “If workers start questioning their place and forming alliances with women and the youth, then that changes everything.”
Osanlou says that the regime was especially rattled that people from all walks of life were coming to the office of his union. So, they wanted to send a message.
“The aim is to break your personality and get you to say what they want,” he states. “They make you confess and then film and publish it to make other people afraid.”
In spite of all that he was subjected to, Osanlou hasn’t given up his hope of a broad-based nonviolent movement in Iran, modeled on Gandhi’s, King’s, and Mandela’s. He mentions the importance of international solidarity, since this is what got him released from prison in 2011. Unions from all over the world (including Wisconsin) petitioned the Iranian government, as did human-rights groups such as Amnesty International. The International Labor Organization played an important part, threatening to bar the Iranian representative from its meetings in Geneva unless he was released, Osanlou says.
“Unions from five continents sent appeals for me to be released,” Osanlou says. “Otherwise, I would have been killed.”
The Iranian government freed Osanlou on medical grounds in 2011 (he had suffered a heart attack in prison). With the help of Amnesty International, he came to the United States, and he currently resides here.
Unlike some others, Osanlou doesn’t have much expectation from the presidency of Hassan Rouhani, who was elected last year on the hope of reform.
“The Rouhani government is following the IMF program of neoliberalism,” says Osanlou. “The living situation for workers, which is already bad, is going down, while expenses are going up.”
Osanlou explains that the situation for workers in Iran has been awful in recent decades, with salaries and benefits so pitiful that many of them are below the poverty line, unable to meet basic living expenses such as clothing and education for their kids. The results is a huge number of children on the street and working as child labor.
“The intention of the elite is to make labor much cheaper than other countries in order to attract investment,” says Osanlou. “The elite buys shares in these companies and makes huge amounts of money.”
Nonetheless, he is hopeful for the future of Iran, a future in which he envisions all of us playing a part.
“We need solidarity between the people of Iran and the people of the United States to create a movement of workers, women, and youth in Iran,” Osanlou says. “Everything in Iran will then be different.”