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Abdorrahman Boroumand Foundation

Interview with Ladan Boroumand, Co-founder of Omid Memorial (Iran)

wmd.org: The Omid Memorial is an online memorial database founded by two sisters, Ladan and Roya Boroumand, which serves as a digital commemoration of those executed by the Islamic regime in Iran since 1979. Omid, which means “hope” in Farsi, is concerned with the protection of human rights and the documentation of committed abuses. The virtual memorial’s goal is both to preserve memory of the victims and to alleviate the suffering of the survivors by acknowledging their pain and documenting the events that took place. The hope is that feelings of revenge and hatred will be diminished.

According to the Web site, “this electronic memorial is a symbolic act against terror. The victims, whom their persecutors tried to silence, reappear through Omid and question the conscience of the perpetrators, of the Iranian people, and of humanity at large.” The Boroumand sisters have said that they hope participation in the memorial empowers the powerless Iranian citizens who will see that even in a totalitarian society they can seek justice by naming names, remembering, and chronicling the crimes.

The project is a continuously updated database, which can be expanded over the Internet by the victims’ families and those who knew them. There are currently 9,185 chronicled victims, each of whom is listed individually on the site, which can be searched by name, gender, age, religion, nationality, charge, country of execution, time periods, and type of execution. Each Web site page devoted to a victim is broken down into sections: “About” contains various biographical information, including age, nationality, religion, education and occupation; “Case”, includes the date of execution, the location, the charges, and the mode of execution; “About this Case” contains details of the arrest and detention, trial, charges, evidence of guilt, defense, and judgment. A sidebar provides human rights codes that were violated in the particular case. One can click on the bottom of the page to correct/add new information, which is submitted to the organization for review.

The database is powered by “Analyzer” which was provided and customized by Benetech’s Human Rights Program. Analyzer is a free tool, specifically designed to document and organize human rights abuses in a statistical manner. For more on Analyzer and how to acquire it, go to: www.hrdag.org/resources/software_projects.shtml

Interview

We would like to thank Ladan Boroumand, Co-founder of Omid, for answering the following interview questions. 

Q: Please tell us a little bit about the Omid initiative: how it was born, its purpose, some of the initial challenges, etc.

The story of Omid goes back to the early days of the Iranian revolution. As a student in France I had been actively involved with the revolutionary movement, though I was always a moderate reformist. In February 1979 I went to Tehran to be a witness to this important upheaval. As I was gathering material for my research on the Iranian revolution, however, I was witnessing how a violent minority was imposing its rule upon an unorganized majority. I still remember vividly the photos of the lifeless bodies of the former regime’s officials who had been executed in one session, behind closed doors, in violation of due process of law. On that morning, standing before this public display of violence, I was overwhelmed by shame because I had participated in this movement without reflecting on its consequences. Later, when I went back to France to continue my studies, the executions continued relentlessly and I started to work on a report on human rights violations, “Iran, In Defense of Human Rights” (1982). This book is the nucleus of what has become today’s Omid.

With the Internet and the opportunity it provides for updating information and interacting with the public and the victims, I thought the time had come to create a memorial to the victims of violence in Iran. I had no difficulty convincing my sister, Roya, to adopt this project. Without her contribution, her valuable experience as a consultant with Human Rights Watch, and her perseverance, the project would not have seen the light of day.

The ordinary citizen’s moral responsibility is at the core of this endeavor. We may not be involved with a government that commits such crimes, but as ordinary citizens we have a moral duty to protest against these crimes and blame the perpetrators. If we want to be free, we need to be responsible. Documenting the abuses, naming and shaming the perpetrators, are our way of taking responsibility for the crimes we have not been able to prevent.

In the spring of 2001, Roya and I incorporated the Abdorrahman Boroumand Foundation, and our first project was Omid. We are both historians and accustomed to conducting research in archives. So the research was not the biggest challenge we confronted. The volume of the work, being only two volunteers with very little financial backing, was a psychological challenge we had to overcome.

When we started, the technology and the database were not adapted to the Persian language, and this was an immense challenge. We therefore depended on our technical support team at the Human Rights Data Analysis Group, which took our project under their wing. The first year, the database was not Persian friendly, and our data would disappear. This was a very painful challenge, given the scarcity of resources. But slowly, with the work of our technical support team, our database became much more efficient and Persian friendly.

Q: You have cases on over 9,000 victims in the database. How do you gather information for each case?

The government of Iran is our primary source; we also use Iranian newspapers, official statements, etc… The reason why we use official sources is because there will be no doubt about the veracity of the information, since it has been provided by the perpetrator itself. International human rights organizations’ reports are also a valuable resource for our research; we also use political party lists, prison memoirs, individual testimonies, and interviews we conduct with the victims’ relatives.

Q: How do you verify information submitted via the Internet? Do you worry about accuracy?

This is a real problem, but one way to verify the information is to cross examine it with other sources. I can give you an example: on the Omid home page, there are several stories. The first one relates the story of a former MP who was told his property would be confiscated and he would be exiled, but he was executed instead. We knew about his case through the testimony of one of his cell mates, a noted lawyer, who published his memoirs. But the author did not give the name of the MP and his narrative was poetic and vague regarding the details. On the other hand, we had entered in the database the name of an MP executed for being a “corruptor on earth” that we found in an early Amnesty International report. “Corruptor on earth” is a charge that was created by the Islamic Republic. It means that the accused is spreading corruption on earth and as a result must be eliminated. It is vague enough to cover any crime or unorthodox opinion. Many former regime officials were executed because they were found guilty of corruption on earth.

An anonymous e-form was sent to us that connected the story on the home page to the case in the Amnesty report, and provided us with more biographical details. So we went ahead and completed the information on this person, since three different sources confirmed the same facts.

But it sometimes happens that the only information we have comes from the e-forms. When the person provides an e-mail address or phone number, we get in touch with him/her and ask more questions to check the accuracy of the information. We also do some research to find out if other sources can confirm the facts. If we do not have other confirmation, but still believe the information is accurate, we will enter it as “unverified.”

Sometimes, the government sources are inaccurate. During the 1980s they killed so many people that they did not have time to check the identity of the victims properly. So the name of a sister is given for a brother who was executed, for instance. We have received an e-form telling us that this victim was not killed and was still alive. So we removed her from the database.

Q: The opportunity to create this online database-memorial must seem empowering, since you would not be allowed to form such a memorial inside your country. What other advantages do you see in the online format? Are there disadvantages?

It is empowering; it allows us to feel less guilty; and it is gratifying. Totalitarian regimes create redoubtable lie propagating machines, and it is literally impossible to undo their relentless distortion of the truth. The Internet is empowering because it provides us with the opportunity to tell the victims’ sides of the story. The truth is the most subversive element in the life of a totalitarian system.

There is also the moving, human side of the story; when people write to us and thank us, when they brave danger to fax us documents regarding their loved ones, we think that we have not wasted our time.

Human rights education is one of our goals and the fact that we can interact with our public is a great advantage. The online adventure has more advantages than disadvantages. The only problem I can think of is that we really depend on our technical team for the work to be done. As “library rats,” we were used to going to archives, studying and writing by ourselves, so this state of dependency can be frustrating sometimes. But we are lucky, because our technical support team is very dedicated to the cause and extremely competent. The only problem is that they are all very busy and Omid is not their only project.

Q: How extensively has the Web site been viewed in Iran, given the efforts presumably made by the government to block free access to the Internet? Have you received any comments, impressions, opinions from Iranians inside the country about the site?

Surprisingly, we have not yet been blocked. The vast majority of our viewers are from Iran. To give you numbers, since Omid was launched, it has had: 101,319 visits, 523,839 pages viewed and 1,262,832 hits. Many people have encouraged us. We have received $10, $15, $100 checks in support of the project, and positive comments. Many former political prisoners have written about the project and are now supporting it.

Q: What is the impact of sites like yours on the future of Iran and Iranian society?

Our dream is to initiate a debate on justice and accountability, as well as on the moral responsibility of ordinary citizens. We want the victims’ relatives to be involved in the cases of their loved ones included in the database. This will be a very challenging task, but we are hopeful. Before this, however, we need to put more data in so people will know that no one will be excluded. The data is far from being complete and will take years to finish.

Q: How has bringing this initiative to life affected you personally?

Everything has changed in our professional lives. Undertaking fundraising, proposal writing, administrative work, and managing our researchers, all with a virtual office and very little means, has been really exhausting. We are always frustrated because we have to sacrifice our research for the sake of matters we consider to be secondary. The trouble is, there is no organization if the secondary matters are not addressed. We often think with nostalgia about our lives as “library rats.” But on the bright side, seeing a concept one has created come to life successfully is very gratifying. When we see that people appreciate the work and use the library eagerly we look at each other and smile.

Thank you very much for your time and sharing your insights with us.

http://www.wmd.org/resources/whats-being-done/memory-projects/interview-ladan-boroumand-co-founder-omid-memorial-iran#sthash.NT96eylL.dpuf

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