By Hamid Yazdan Panah
On October 30th, 2012, Sattar Beheshti was arrested by the Iranian cyber police. His crime alleged crime was posting his political opinions on social media, which included a harsh rebuke of the regime in Iran. Beheshti would never see home again. Prison authorities would contact his family on November 6th and asking them to collect his body. Four years after his death, Beheshti has come to embody the spirit of resistance in Iran, in an ongoing struggle against censorship and governmental repression.
Iran: Cutting Edge Resistance
Iran provides a compelling example of the dynamic interplay between state actors and online activists, each relentless in pursuit of their own ends. The population of Iran has in many ways been on the forefront of online activism and the struggle against censorship. Starting in the early 2000’s, a largely youthful and disaffected population found their outlet through the internet. At one time Iran highest number of blogs per capita. Yet the Iranian regime remained one of the worst violators of human rights and freedom of expression in the world, and a clampdown on online activism was inevitable.
This clampdown would reach a head in 2009, when online activism became a key component of nationwide protests against the electoral fraud and deep rooted grievances against the ruling establishment. The world would be captivated by images and videos posted on the internet, uploaded by ordinary Iranians. It is worth noting that the first of the so called “Twitter revolutions” took place in Iran, two years before they spread to the Arab world.
After the crackdown in 2009, political expression remain muted on the streets, but remained an essential part of Iran’s online discourse, whether in the form of expression, news or satire. The distribution of speeches, protests and events became an integral part of Iranian activism, for those inside and outside the country. Yet increased visibility also means easier surveillance. A double edged sword in a country where the wrong words can mean imprisonment, torture and even death.
My Life for Iran
The 35 year old Beheshti lived in Robat Karim, a lower income neighborhood outside of Tehran, was a day laborer by trade. Yet by night he vented his frustrations and expressed his views on a blog named “My Life for Iran”, a subtle play on a slogan that had recently become popular in anti-government rallies. Beheshti had reportedly been arrested during student protests in 1999, and remained outspoken in his political views.
Beheshti’s blog posts centered on the arrest and imprisonment of activists and expressed anger and frustration over the daily injustices that took place in Iran. In October of 2012 his posts changed in tone and nature, and he boldly expressed his defiance towards the regime, crossing red lines in a country known for the targeting of dissidents. This included an open letter to the Supreme Leader Khamanei in which he sharply criticized violence against protestors and proclaimed, "At the moment, the poor and deprived are rebelling...If they really rise, even the Revolutionary Guard cannot stop them."
On October 22nd he addressed Khamanei and statedm "I can call you an artist," Beheshti wrote in reference to Khamenei, "in the art of killing. Believe me, I consider you an artist."
The day before his arrest, Beheshti posted an ominous final blog entry. "They threatened me yesterday and said, 'Your mother will soon wear black because you don't shut your big mouth.'" However Beheshti added, ““I will not remain silent even at the moment of my death.”
Beheshti was arrested on October 30 by Iran’s Cyber Police (FATA) and taken to Iran’s notorious Evin prison. On October 31st Beheshti penned an official complaint to the head of Evin, claiming that he had been tortured, and noting that if anything happened to him “the police are responsible.”
Three days after being detained Beheshti would die under mysterious circumstances. According to reports, Beheshti died of internal bleeding, hemorrhaging in his lungs, liver, kidneys, and brain. After Beheshti’s death, 41 political prisoners in Evin Prison signed a letter claiming that signs of torture were “clearly visible” on his body while he was held at Evin’s Section 350.
Akbar Taghizadeh, a FATA interrogator was put on trial for involuntary manslaughter. Beheshti’s family did not attend the trial. His Mother, Gohar Eshghi was quoted as stating, “We and our lawyer did not attend the so-called trial sessions and we left judgment [in this case] to future generations and history”
A Tradition of Dissent
The regime in Iran attempted to turn Beheshti’s death into an isolated incident. Reprimanding those involved in his death and claiming that a thorough investigation had taken place. Yet Beheshti’s was neither the first, nor the last blogger to die in Iran.
In 2009, Omid Reza Mir Sayafi, a 29-year old Iranian blogger and journalist died in Evin Prison in Tehran, while serving a two and a half year sentence. Sayafi’s case garnered headlines as one of the first bloggers in the world to die while serving his prison sentence.
The regime has not shied away from sentencing activists to death for their online activities. On August 4th, 2008, Iran executed blogger Yaghoob Mehrnehad, a social activist from the southeastern province of Sistan and Baluchistan. Mehrnehad was accused of being a member of Baloch militant organizations, while others have maintained that he was targeted for his writing.
In 2011 Iran began a second wave of repressing targeting activists. This included death sentences handed down Saeed Malekpour and Vahid Asghari, Ahmadreza Hashempour, and Mehdi Alizadeh on charges of anti-government agitation and insulting Islam.
Subtle Resistance and Smart Censorship
It comes as no surprise that Iran’s censorship and monitoring strategies have been recognised by experts as one of the most comprehensive and sophisticated in the world. In the past the regime has partnered with Western companies to conduct surveillance on dissidents. As of late they have begun to develop domestic technologies to monitor activists, going so far as producing their own “halal” internet.
These methods are part of a comprehensive plan by the regime to veil their censorship with political and religious pretexts, going so far as to claim that using Western social media outlets will empower the enemies of Iran. Yet the regime’s has also employed subtle efforts to capitalize on social media.
Earlier this year the regime announced a one year deadline for foreign messaging apps to move their data on Iranian users onto servers within Iran. Giving the regime clear access to data stored within its borders. The plan was reportedly, based on the "guidelines and concerns of the supreme leader". Interestingly enough, while social media remains difficult to access in Iran, Khamenei has setup his own Twitter and even Instagram account to spread their message.
All of these signs may point to a more sophisticated approach to the internet by the regime in Iran, one which leaves room for surveillance and subtle methods of gathering intelligence on dissidents. Iran is shifting its strategy away from blatant censorship, to a multi-layered system which provides methods to track dissidents, and provide “moral” alternatives to existing internet websites. In 2013, Iranian police chief Esmaeil Ahmadi Moghadam was quoted saying, “Smart control of social networks is better than filtering them completely.”
As censorship and surveillance grows, so do methods of resistance. Iranian activists remain defiant in the race to remain one step ahead of the regime. Whether it is in the subtle art of Jafar Panahi’s “This is not a Film”, to conducting campaigns on social media, dissent in Iran remains part of the nation's tradition.
Sattar Beheshti’s mother carries on that tradition, as she has refuses to remain silent about the injustices that occur in Iran. She is often pictured at home with the portraits of other Iranian dissidents who were martyred. Her home has since become a meeting place for Iranian dissidents, and like the mothers whose children were killed by the Shah, she has became a symbol of resistance for Iranians. She has repeated her calls for justice not only for her son but for all Iranian dissidents. “As a mother – more importantly than this, specifically as the mother of Sattar Beheshti – my resolve is uncompromising: I will show to those who pretend to be on the side of the people that I will not flee from anything.”
Though Sattar Beheshti’s early death was a tragic indicator of the limits of free speech and tolerance in modern Iran, his life and defiance are an inspiration for Iranians and activists all over the world. The regime's policies were no doubt intended to silence Beheshti, but ironically his words now echo throughout the world as an expression of what is felt but not said in the hearts and minds of millions of Iranians.
Hamid Yazdan Panah is an Iranian-American human rights activist and attorney focused on immigration and asylum in the San Francisco Bay Area.
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