By Anthony Faiola
KAYSERI, TURKEY -- After an hours-long interrogation, Iranian intelligence agents trailed Aida Saadat to the dimly lit streets of her neighborhood in Tehran, she recalled. Yelling out her name, they came at her with batons, then left her lying on the sidewalk bloodied and bruised.
"They called it a warning and said they'd be back," said Saadat, a women's rights activist and key figure in the political protests that have rocked Iran for months.
That night, she packed a small bag and joined hundreds of other dissidents who human rights groups say are escaping Iran in numbers not seen in years. She crossed freezing rivers and traversed arid plains with the aid of a hired smuggler, she said, ducking patrols on her way to neighboring Turkey.
Her departure in November added to a small but growing exodus of the crusading journalists, human rights activists, academics and artists who have long ranked among Iran's chief agents of change. They range from high-profile cases, such as dissident journalist Hasan Sarbakhshian and filmmaker Narges Kalhor, the daughter of a top adviser to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to the lesser-known members a nascent movement of gays and lesbians struggling for tolerance in a nation where homosexuality is punishable by death.
Some observers say their departure could set back the democratic movement in Iran, where Ahmadinejad's disputed reelection last summer sparked protests and a crackdown on dissidents.
Saadat, for instance, for years openly fought against laws that institutionalize women as second-class citizens. In the election's aftermath, she tapped into an underground network of women's rights activists. She secretly fed details of street demonstrations to foreign news outlets and organized the mothers of slain student protesters for silent vigils in Tehran's Lelah Park.
Now she is holed up in an unheated apartment in central Turkey, a nation that has forged closer ties with Iran in recent years and officially forbids refugees from engaging in political activity -- a rule many have nevertheless ignored.
"You have high achievers in the political fight coming out of Iran, where their influence is going to be much less than if they were still there," said Drewery Dyke, an Iran specialist with Amnesty International.
Some refugees in Turkey say they have received threatening phone calls from Iranian agents. One refugee said last month that operatives stole her cellphone, which was packed with contact information for dissidents in Tehran.
Yet Dyke and other rights activists said the dissidents' relative freedom in exile offers them a better perch for their fight than would the inside of an Iranian jail. They are now helping fuel an international network of exiles who send blocked international news reports and details of upcoming protests to allies back home. They also document abuses, including allegations of torture and rape at the hands of security forces, with human rights groups abroad.
"You now have people working together to say bring back the promise of a more transparent, open society that was lost when Ahmadinejad came to power," said Hadi Ghaemi, director of the New York-based International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran.
He later continued: "You even have gays and lesbians, presented as criminals by the government, becoming more active -- forming networks, disseminating information. That's how change can happen."
Clutching his cellphone, his main link to the country he fled to escape arrest late last year, Hamid Safari walked past storefronts in the southern Turkish city of Isparta. Alternately playing back downloaded images of Iranian street protests and songs by Madonna and Beyoncé, he ignored the curious stares of passing Turks. His long, flowing hair and well-groomed eyebrows are telltale signs of gay men in Iran.
"I try to blend in," said Safari, 25. "But there is only so much I can do to avoid notice."
One of 1,356 Iranian refugees who have fled into Turkey since June, Safari is seeking asylum overseas. Some have paid smugglers $1,500 or more to spirit them out of Iran; others risk arrest and deportation by attempting to cross directly into Western Europe. Still others, like Safari, arrive at the Turkish border and hope for the best -- Turkey is one of the few nations not to require an entry visa for Iranian citizens.
Since Ahmadinejad came to power in 2005, oppression of gays has intensified, according to human rights groups. Many gay refugees here, including several who have been lashed by authorities for their sexuality, said they never labored under the illusion that Ahmadinejad's rivals would support their cause. But they saw a change in leadership as part of a longer-term solution.
They began to organize just before the June election. Using gay social networking Web sites popular in the West for finding sexual partners -- such as ManJam -- Safari and others here said they arranged political meetings at cafes and parks. At least 60 people, he said, turned out for a gathering at a monument in his home town of Shiraz.
After the election, at least twice as many joined the ensuing protests in Shiraz, identifying themselves as gay by wearing silver rings on their thumb. The gay refugees said other protesters shunned them in some cities, such as Tehran. But student groups in Shiraz, Safari said, welcomed gay protesters as allies and encouraged them to become more deeply involved.
Safari said they did just that -- burning and handing out CDs with photos of government violence, uploading images of demonstrations to the Internet and posting anti-government writings to blogs.
They paid a price. At protests, police set the long hair of gay demonstrators on fire and smashed them in the groin with batons. The café where Safari and other gays had informally gathered in Shiraz was closed.
Agents traced their profiles on gay Web sites, refugees said, arresting some men and women and informing the employers and parents of others of their "sexual deviance." Several here say they were fired or kicked out of their homes, leaving them no choice but to escape.
"Ahmadinejad once said at the United Nations that there were no gays in Iran," Safari said. "I think he's now trying to make that come true."
In an apartment in the central Turkish city of Kayseri, a dozen recently arrived Iranian refugees gathered around a meal of fried fish and rice, placed traditionally on a cloth on the floor. Although they live in different parts of the city, the dissidents regularly get together to share meals, music and news from Iran.
Their varied backgrounds underscored the diversity of the anti-government movement. In one corner sat Afshin Darvaresh, 31, a visual artist, who said security forces ransacked his studios in Tehran in June after they found anti-government fliers hidden in his files. He chatted with Hasan Vaziri, 31, a labor leader at a chemical plant in Shiraz, who helped mobilize workers for the protests. Opposite them, Saadat, the woman's rights activist, sat cross-legged on the floor.
"We all left because we had no choice," she said. "None of us want to be here."
Turkey does not accept non-European refugees for permanent resettlement, and processing for asylum in the West could take two years or longer. Most will probably go to the United States or Canada, a smaller number to Western Europe and Australia. Until then, they are burning through savings to cover housing, food and a refugee tax. Turkey does not allow them to work.
Many, like Saadat, have remained politically active from exile. She is preparing reports documenting the arrests of 30 Iranian women's rights advocates for an opposition Web site.
"Do not underestimate the will of those fighting for freedom and social justice in Iran," she said. "It will not be that easy to defeat us."