On Friday, the human right sources reported that over 100 Iranian activists had been indicted for their roles in the mass protests that took place throughout the country in late December and January. Some of those indictments represent national security charges, meaning that the arrestees could face long prison sentences or even execution. Indeed, judiciary officials previously warned that death sentences were likely for people deemed leaders of the protest movement, which gave rise to unusually provocative, anti-government slogans such as “death to the dictator.”
The CHRI report noted that it was initially unclear as to whether the dozens of recent indictments involved a nationwide roster of defendants or only people who faced trial in the capital city of Tehran. In either case, but especially if these reports relate only to Tehran, it is all but certain that further indictments will be filed in the days and weeks ahead. Iranian officials acknowledged that there had been more than 4,000 arrests across the country, but the National Council of Resistance of Iran puts the figure at twice that number. The judiciary also reported that many of the arrestees were quickly released, but this appears to have little bearing on their prospective fates, since some of those who had been released were reportedly summoned back to court last week to be informed of serious charges.
Intelligence gathering by the NCRI has also uncovered at least 14 instances of arrestees being tortured to death in the weeks following the violent repression of the January uprising. Fifty others were reportedly killed in clashes with security forces, and regime authorities have sought to cover up evidence of this. Accordingly, the efforts to portray and prosecute protesters as threats to national security has been accompanied by a broader crackdown on the activist community, and particularly on those who seek to expose information about state-sanctioned violence in the face of peaceful protests.
A separate CHRI report highlighted an example of this on Friday, detailing the case of human rights lawyer Mohammad Najafi, who is facing charges in three different courts and the possibility of several years in prison as a result of his speaking publicly about the death of a client, Vahid Heydari. Najafi is being charged in Iran’s Revolutionary Court with undermining national security, and in criminal court with “undermining public order.” He has also been summoned to face charges of “propaganda against the state,” relating to earlier actions he had taken regarding another case.
Last November, Najafi delivered a speech marking the fifth anniversary of dissident blogger Sattar Beheshti’s death under torture by Iran’s cyber police. Then, in January, Najafi was promptly arrested by agents of the Intelligence Ministry after he spoke to independent media and gave details about the severe beatings Heydari had suffered before dying in an Arak police station against the backdrop of the nationwide protests.
Najafi’s account of his client’s death undermined authorities’ efforts to portray the protester as a drug addict who had committed suicide while in detention. This narrative has similarly been applied to a number of other instances of suspicious deaths in police custody, and other opponents of that narrative have faced similar threats of personal or legal consequences. The loved ones of deceased detainees have consistently been discouraged from speaking to the media and from seeking independent autopsies that might establish a cause of death other than drug overdose or suicide.
At the same time, there is a persistent risk that the list of victims of prisoner abuse will continue to grow longer, not only because of the number of people who remain in detention or have been recently indicted, but also because the recent protests sparked a broad-based campaign of repression targeting activists and political dissenters of virtually every stripe. And over the past two weeks, the regime may have been setting the stage for more of the same, by way of stepped-up hacking attacks against perceived threats to the theocratic system and its hardline vision for Iranian society.
EA Worldview reported that the targets of these efforts included not just known dissidents but also charity workers, academics, various dual nationals, and associates of Iranian political prisoners. The same report also indicates that this trend has coincided with an increase in the number of native Iranians and dual nationals taken into custody by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.
Furthermore, hacking is not the only means by which perceived political threats to the regime are being monitored under present circumstances. Another EA Worldview report indicated that surveillance devices had been discovered at the residence of Mohammad Khatami, the former Iranian president whose reputation as a reformist recently resulted in his image and name being banned from all Iranian media.
Khatami is not alone in this, and other politicians have protested their being made subject to surveillance for apparently breaking ranks with powerful hardline forces. One would assume that if this is true of mainstream Iranian politicians, the same practice is being applied to independent dissidents and activists, especially in the wake of the protests.
Indeed, regime authorities have made considerable efforts since that time to tighten their grip on the media and to expand their own abilities to monitor communications within the country. Toward that end, it was formally announced on Monday that Iranian internet service providers were banned from allowing access to the popular instant messaging app Telegram, which was reportedly used by half of Iran’s population of 80 million.
IranWire published an in-depth report on the history of authorities’ efforts to ban the service over the past three years or so. It notes that these efforts naturally accelerated in the wake of the December-January uprising, the organization of which was reportedly facilitated in large part by Telegram.
Now that the ban has been formally imposed, the regime is hoping that Iranians will shift to more easily monitored domestic alternatives, but the public overwhelmingly recognizes the risk of doing so, and IranWire speculates that much of the activist community will instead shift to the already popular image-sharing app Instagram.
But while such reports underscore the ongoing conflict between censorship authorities and a defiant public, the fact remains that Tehran is persisting in its efforts to make all outlets for public expression subject to regime control and monitoring. Al Monitor reported last week that the state media agency, Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting, was being granted authority to license and regulate virtually all video and audio content online. If the measure is allowed to stand, it may be considered a significant step toward the long-sought establishment of a national information network comprised only of regime-approved content, wherein the use of social media for activist purposes would be much more difficult.