By Mahmoud Hakamian
A leading coalition of Iranian opposition groups, the National Council of Resistance of Iran, has revealed the names of 29 political prisoners, as part of a bid to urge international action on Iran’s human rights abuses and expanding crackdown on domestic dissent. Iran Human Rights Monitor reproduced the list on Thursday, with each name accompanied by a date of arrest spanning from June 2018 to March 2019. Although the list represents only a fraction of the total population of political prisoners in the Islamic Republic, the NCRI emphasized that not all such arrests have been disclosed by regime authorities, meaning that the actual figures may be much greater than those that have been cited to date.
The IHRM report also noted that the NCRI’s disclosures came in the immediate aftermath of an announcement by the Iranian Minister of Intelligence concerning the arrest of members and affiliates of the NCRI’s main constituent group, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran. A separate IHRM report explained that Mahmoud Alavi had used a Tehran prayer gathering last Friday as a platform for boasting about the arrest of 116 PMOI members over the past year. Alavi intimated that these arrests were part of a broader initiative ordered by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. This sort of emphasis on suppression of PMOI organizing raising significant alarms since the group was the main target of a campaign of mass executions in 1988 which left 30,000 people dead.
Alavi’s references to “directives” and “wise instructions” from the supreme leader arguably lend credence to the NCRI’s insistence that arrest figures are larger than have been acknowledged, both for the general activist population and for the PMOI in particular. Furthermore, the number cited by Alavi seems like a conservative estimate in the context of subsequent public statements about the arrest and prosecution of persons who had merely been in contact with the PMOI, without formally joining its ranks.
According to the same IHRM report, the Director General of the Intelligence Department in West Azerbaijani Province announced that 60 people had been arrested for communicating with the PMOI, while 50 others had been identified and verbally warned about the potential legal consequences of interaction with the banned group. There have been a number of recorded instances, even in recent years, of the Iranian judiciary carrying out the death penalty for charges stemming from activities no more serious than donating money to PMOI media networks.
One might question why Iranian authorities claim to have identified very nearly as many non-member affiliates of the PMOI in the past year as they have actual members. One possible explanation is that the arrest figures cited by Alavi seek to downplay the group’s nationwide membership, even as local security forces feel compelled to warn substantial numbers of activists against offering it support. This would be in keeping with the regime’s longstanding claim that the PMOI is only a marginal threat, lacking in popularity within Iranian society.
Yet this talking point was undermined at the beginning of 2018, when nationwide protests against the theocratic system led to Khamenei issuing a statement that attributed much of the planning and organization of the anti-government uprising to the PMOI. In March of that year, PMOI/NCRI leader Maryam Rajavi called upon the Iranian people to pursue a “year full of uprisings,” and this appeared to precipitate resurgent protests, as led by local organizing bodies that the group refers to as “resistance units.” The large numbers of people currently facing arrest for communication with the PMOI may also be an effect of such calls to action, and the public response.
Of course, the PMOI is far from the only current challenge to the Iranian regime, and authorities’ crackdown on dissent certainly predates the January 2018 uprising. The public has been challenging the theocratic government in various subtler ways in recent years, often by simply defying Tehran’s efforts to enforce draconian laws based on a fundamentalist interpretation of Islamic.
Many of these laws relate to the role of women and the segregation of young Iranians according to gender. The anti-government protests closely coincided with the separate emergence of a movement in opposition to the forced veiling of women, known as “Girls of Revolution Street.” The associated protests involve women removing their headscarves while standing on elevated structures in public place. As such, they seem to demonstrate a growing willingness to violate laws that are seen as unjust or contrary to the public will.
But this sort of defiance had previously been well-established in less public places. Indeed, the Revolution Street protests were an outgrowth of the “My Stealthy Freedom” campaign organized by London-based women’s rights activist Masih Alinejad, which encouraged Iranian women to remove their legally required hijabs while alone and then post photos of themselves to social media.
It is difficult to say with certainty whether the increase in these sorts of protests preceded or followed the clerical regime’s efforts to reassert its hardline principles with regard to gender roles and other social issues. But it is clear that both phenomena have been ongoing for some time, with authorities in recent years announcing the deployment of additional morality police units, cancelling performances by female actors and musicians, expanding gender segregation laws to cover new areas, and so on.
On Wednesday, IHRM called renewed attention to one of the many outlets for the conflict between opposition trends among the people and the government. That report noted that 25 individuals had been arrested in the city of Gorgan as a result of a raid on a mixed gender party where participants consumed alcohol and declined to comply with the Islamic dress code.
Such raids are not new, but IHRM emphasizes that they have become much more frequent and punitive in the past three years. The impetus for this escalation was reportedly an initiative by the office of the supreme leader to crack down on “social harm,” and as a result of his warning even private weddings have come to be targeted. Since the beginning of the year, at least 97 people have been arrested for fraternizing with persons of the opposite gender at a private gathering.
Khamenei’s role in directing the crackdown is an extension of his personal efforts to reassert the Islamic Republic’s hardline identity. Many of the aforementioned expansions of systemic gender discrimination were direct outgrowths of his announcement of a plan, in 2015, to raise the Iranian birthrate by encouraging women to avoid entering the workforce in favor of starting large families at a young age. That plan involved banning vasectomies and cutting access to birth control overall, as well as conveying propaganda through state media.
Of course, whether it is for the sake of political dissent or the embrace of alternative social trends and lifestyles, the Iranian people have been facing the challenging of competing against the state media apparatus. This is accomplished in large part through the internet and social media, but state authorities have been working to expand upon controls over such tools at the same time that they have been enforcing gender norms and cracking down on the PMOI and other pro-democratic voices.
The Center for Human Rights in Iran published an article this week highlighting the persistence of that effort. In the first place, it reported that the nation’s prosecutor general has opened a series of offices for a new state agency called the Cyber Division Rapid Reaction Center. The new agency appears to be connected to messages that some Iranian internet users see when they attempt to access banned sites, which say that the user’s “device specifications and internet identification have been recorded.”
According to CHRI’s investigation, persons who attempt to access the same site for times are told, “Because of your repeated actions in trying to access an illegal content provider, your IP has been reported for prosecution.” However, the report notes that these warnings can still be avoided by using circumvention and encryption tools, which are commonplace among tech savvy Iranian internet users who wish to continue accessing various banned news sites and social media networks like Twitter and Telegram.
This speaks to the Iranian people’s continued ability to push back against the escalating enforcement measures of hardline authorities. But these advantages in the cyber sphere offer no protection against more traditional crackdowns on free speech and the dissemination of information. Naturally, reports continue to emerge on a regular basis describing the arrests of journalists and known social media activists.
Along those lines, IranWire reported on Thursday that authorities had taken Mohammad-Reza Nasab Abdollahi, the editor-in-chief of Anar Press and Aban Press into custody and transferred him to an undisclosed location. Details of the arrest were scarce, but it is not the first time Abdollahi has been targeted for his journalistic activities. And in this case, his mother’s home was also raided in an apparent act of brute intimidation.
A day earlier, CHRI reported upon the prosecution of Kamal Jafari Yazdi, a former supporter of the Iranian regime who began criticizing the government online following the crackdown on the 2009 Green Movement. For the crime of “forming an illegal group against national security” by posting to his Telegram account with occasional news of political prisoners, Yazdi was sentenced this month to 13 years in prison.
Yazdi’s own account of his trial indicated that there was some disconnect between the actual proceedings and the final verdict, likely indicating that the outcome had been pre-determined. For this and other political prisoners, such occurrences are indicative of a crackdown that is being directed against all areas of Iranian life by the nation’s highest authorities, primarily the supreme leader.