Hardliner Repression of Iranians Online

Co-authored by Babak Rahimi

As Tehran's nuclear crisis grabs headlines and there is talk of easing relations with Iran by opening an US interest section in Iran for the first time since hostage crisis of 1979, an ominous development is taking place inside Iran: the escalation of state repression against Iranian dissidents online. In the wake of the ninth anniversary of the July 1999 student uprising, which shocked the regime to its foundation, the hard-liner administration of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has stepped up the arrest of political dissidents, who have used the Net as an alternative medium to express their views against the Islamic Republic. Coupled with their suspicion of the international community, and continued attachment to a dogmatic vision of an Islamist society, the recent developments raise concern over the extent to which hard-liners are determined to muzzle dissent in cyberspace, hence advancing their sphere of influence over the Iranian civil society -- especially over women's rights and human rights groups who have suffered the most in the latest attacks.

Among the many dissidents detained by the regime are prominent students and women's rights activists like Mohammad Hashemi and Bahare Hedayat, whose websites were shut down in July for allegedly propagating 'immoral activities' online and receiving support from anti-regime organizations based outside of Iran. The two are accused of acting against 'national security' and 'insulting public sanctities.' The July arrests came at the same time as the disturbing news that the hard-liner dominated Iranian parliament has plans to toughen some of the press laws in order to make dissenter blogging an offence punishable by death. Bloggers who express anti-regime views on personalized weblogs would be vulnerable to being labeled as enemies of God on Earth (Mofsed al-ferarz), a crime punishable by death. If passed by parliament, the new law would unleash the most repressive measure adopted by the Islamic Republic to this day.

There are many reasons why the state is weary of cyberspace. When first introduced in the early 1990s in Iran, the Internet emerged as an added medium for publishing works that are usually censored in the traditional print media by the hard-liners in the regime. With Internet becoming a popular medium of information technology among Iranians, especially the younger generation, the state began to recognize the potential danger of the new technology and adopted filtering technology to limit public access to various websites. Advancing an online censorship campaign that has progressively expanded with the arrest of Internet activists since 2000, Tehran's judiciary drastically expanded its tightening measure, especially with the ascendancy of the reactionary ideologue administration of Ahmadinejad in 2005.

Iran now employs the highest level of Internet filtering and surveillance in the world. As of today, Iranians are prohibited to access certain websites ranging from academia (i.e. American Anthropological Association.com) to social online networking (i.e. Myspace.com), erotic poetry and computer technology-- especially those that relate to anti-filtering programs. Politically dissenting sites are subject to regular blocks, while sites devoted to human rights (i.e. Amnesty International) and ethnic minorities inside and outside of the country are filtered for fear of undermining the existing religious ideology of the government.

However, the hard-liner's latest tightening grip on the Internet should be viewed not only as an enlargement of the regime of censorship, but a way to stifle dissident during the unfolding nuclear crisis, which has aroused the conspiratorial mind-set of the ideologues for fear of foreign manipulation of activists inside the country. Just as news about easing US relations with Iran spread in the recent months, Iranian authorities began to increase their attacks, especially on Iranian women's rights and human rights activists. While there were talks about the possibility of a US interest section in Iran for the first time since hostage crisis of 1979 in the past weeks, the supreme leader through his directly-controlled newspaper, Kayhan, pursued activists. Among the first targets of Kayhan's infamous accusations were two Kurdish activists in Sanandaj -- capital of Kurdistan province in Iran who were peacefully collecting signatures for One Million Signature Campaign. Keyhan newspaper- the official spokesman for the office of the supreme leader- accused Ronak Safarzadeh and Hana Abdi for engaging in threats to "national security" and "moharebeh". The latter charge has fatal consequences as it means they have taken up arms to fight the state on behalf of the Kurdish movement -- the PKK. Another Kurdish women's rights activist, Zeinab Bayazdi has been convicted on the same charges and received a four-year prison sentence.

The charges were false. Both are young activists -- in their early twenties -- committed to a non-violent grassroots movement- One Million Signatures Campaign -- that has started two years ago by women's rights activists first in Tehran and later active in 16 provinces around the country as well as among Iranian diasporas in Germany, US, Kuwait and UAE. The simple act of gathering signatures has been defined by the Iranian authorities as "threat to national security" and some of the activists are spotted and detained by president Ahmadinejad's newly appointed police guards, so called "social security guards" (amniat ejtemaie) in public places such as parks, buses and in the streets.

Mahboubeh Karami is one of those activists arrested while riding a bus in Tehran. She has been detained in Evin prison for the past 60 days while her family cannot meet the monetary penalties set by the judiciary branch to set her free. Amir Yaghoubali, a twenty two year old man who has been gathering signature for One million Signature Campaign is also charged for threatening national security and has received a one-year prison sentence. Khadijeh Moghadam, the founder of Mothers' for Peace group in Tehran was also recently detained for 9 days for her non-violent activities.

Stepping up the surge against civil rights activists, an ex-blogger turned into Kayhan newspaper "investigator" has recently alleged that the women's rights activists are funded by the "CIA" and are a part of a conspiracy effort to overthrow the regime through a US and Israeli-funded "velvet revolution". Payam Fazlinejad, the author of this "investigative report" was himself a blogger who was kidnapped two times during the first round of suppressions against the bloggers' community in Iran in 2001. After spending time in the Evin prison and possibly undergoing torture, he started cooperating with the judicial authorities to turn in dissident bloggers and activists. His list of "suspected" activists this time includes Shirin Ebadi, the Noble peace prize laureate of 2003 and some 15 activists and bloggers.

The recent wave of arrests and accusations bring back the chilling memory of the massacre of political prisoners in 1988 (1367 Persian year). In 1988, a few months after the supreme leader then- Ayatollah Khomeini himself- was about to sign the U.N. Security Council Resolution 598 that ended the eight year war between Iran and Iraq, he ordered the massive killings of political prisoners in Evin prison and other prisons throughout Iran. More than 3,000 political prisoners were killed. Many clergies, including Montazeri, objected but the supreme leader was undettered. It seemed that such a brutal act was needed while negotiating with the west in order to demonstrate that Islamic Republic of Iran is strong as evident in its dealing with internal dissent while accepting peace in the region. Could it be that the supreme leader today is thinking the same? As Islamic Republic of Iran is entering direct negotiations with the great Satan, it is necessary to suppress internal dissent to show that the regime is stronger than ever.