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Acclaimed Iranian Filmmaker Challenges Rulers To A Referendum

Iranian film director Jafar Panahi smiles, following his release on bail, at his home in Tehran, May 25, 2010

Acclaimed Iranian film director Jafar Panahi has called upon the leaders of Iran to either allow a referendum to determine the popularity of the current ruling system or let the people freely protest and present their demands.

Earlier, scores of Iranian actors, filmmakers, and artists had also openly supported citizens’ right to peaceful protests.

After several years of conflict with security units over the content of his films (including several short detentions), Panahi was arrested in March 2010 along with his wife, daughter, and 15 friends and later charged with propaganda.

In December 2010, Panahi was sentenced to six years' in prison and a 20-year ban on directing any movies, writing screenplays, giving any form of interview to Iranian or foreign media, or from leaving the country, except for medical treatment or making the Hajj pilgrimage, the Green Voice of Freedom reported in 2010.

He was finally released on bail on May 25 amid a growing international pressure on Iranian authorities for his release.

Panahi had openly opposed the re-election of incumbent Mahmud Ahmadinejad during the controversial 2009 presidential election that led to months of unrest and street demonstrations, mainly in Tehran.

Panahi's films have won numerous awards at Berlin International Film Festival, Cannes Film Festival, Chicago International Film Festival, Venice Film Festival and in many other international competitions.

When he won in Berlin in 2013, the Iranian government complained to the Berlin Film Festival, citing a 20-year ban on Panahi.

Calling for a referendum to measure the popularity of current theocracy in Iran, Panahi wrote on his Instagram account that he was crossing the short distance in Tehran between Revolution Circle to Vali Asr crossroad and saw thousands of bike-riding Baseejis (members of a paramilitary force affiliated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, in charge of suppressing dissidents and protesters), police officers, and anti-riot forces, all fully equipped and ready to confront the protesters.

“What’s the reason behind such a military expedition and fear from a demonstration?” Panahi asked. “Is it for the sake of keeping security? The impression I got was that the city was occupied by foreign forces.”

Furthermore, he added, “A political ruling system enjoying popular support avoids military expeditions and massacring people. Fear emerges in tandem with military expedition, which automatically means the ruling system is devoid of any popular backing.”

Without naming any leaders, he continued, “If you believe in your popularity, allow holding a referendum. The most peaceful way [out of the current dead-end] is holding a referendum.”

Referring to the possible expenses of holding a referendum, Panahi suggested, “If you do not have the necessary budget for holding a referendum, you may call on your supporters to pour into the streets on a given day and without redeployment of security, police, and military forces, let people opposing you to hold a demonstration on another day, as well.”

The size of the two crowds will show if the regime is popular or not, Panahi suggests and says he is sure the nation will respect the outcome regardless of its result, “But are you prepared to respect it, as well?”

Meanwhile, scores of Iranian celebrities have publicly supported the peaceful demonstrations and condemned any form of violent confrontation against protesters.

Actor Taraneh Alidousti called upon police and security forces to refrain from physical confrontation with protesters.

Her colleague, Mahnaz Afshar, tweeted, “This is the voice of protesting people; and the answer to a protest is not teargas or truncheon.”

Condemning violence and vandalism, film director and screenwriter Tahmineh Milani insisted that, “beyond any doubt, the scene [of widespread mass protests all over Iran] is not the outcome of the enemy’s plotting or set by it."

Vocalist and composer Alireza Assar also commented during his January 1 concert, “Many of us are not in favor of some incidents, including breaking windows. ... Yet, people are on the right side. The officials, regardless of their positions, should pay attention to the fact that these people [protesters] do not truly deserve to live in hardship while their country is rich.”

Outside Iran, actor and comedian Maz Jobrani, pop singers Googoosh, Faramarz Aslani, and Hatef, film director Shirin Neshat, and photojournalist Reza Deghati also voiced their support for the protesters.