Activists Pushing Back Against Expanding Repression in Iran, but to Little Avail

The procedure for this collaboration between hacking and the abuses of security forces is well established. Before being shut down by European security, the previous hacker groups had linked activists’ computers to online networks including high-profile Westerners, allowing the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps to make a series of arrests last month and portray them as members of an elaborate, decentralized infiltration network headquartered in Washington.

Those arrests were widely reported and were cited by Western analysts as evidence of a large-scale crackdown on activism, information-sharing, and pro-Western attitudes in the wake of the July 14 nuclear agreement and associated expectations of international reconciliation. That effort has arguably been ongoing for some time, however, including such things as the arrest and recently-confirmed conviction of Washington Post correspondent and American-Iranian dual citizen Jason Rezaian.

But at the same time that these reports have been accumulating, so too have been reports of counter-trends among the Iranian populous, defying the expanded repression with activism that focuses on exposing wrongful arrests and similar abuses. Case in point, the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran reported last week that 90 Iranian journalists had signed a letter calling for the release of four other journalists who were arrested at the beginning of November on “trumped-up” charges of being members of an infiltration network.

Similarly, the Times of Israel reported on Sunday that 137 Iranian filmmakers had signed their own letter calling for the acquittal of one of their peers, Kayvan Karimi, who was recently sentenced to six years in prison and 223 lashes for directing a documentary film about political graffiti painted on walls in Tehran.

Karimi’s arrest and conviction on charges of “insulting the sacred” have helped to demonstrate that the ongoing crackdown is apparently not just about direct political speech but also about suppression of artistic and cultural expressions that might cast doubt upon the theocratic regime’s control over public sentiment. This same idea has been illustrated by the arrests, on similar charges, of poets and artists, especially those with connections to the West.

But there have been notable counter-trends against the specific cultural content of this crackdown, as well. Last week, the International Campaign reported upon an incident of opposition to the hardline crackdown on multiple cultural fronts, namely increasingly strict gender segregation, enforcement of Islamic dress codes, and obstruction of music performance, especially where female musicians are involved.

On November 29, the Tehran Symphony Orchestra was scheduled to play a concert at the end of an international wrestling event but was stopped by authorities just before the performance when it was suggested that the female members of the orchestra were improperly veiled. The orchestra’s artistic director and his performers elected to cancel the performance altogether in lieu of excluding or segregating the female members. Afterwards, the head of the Iranian Wrestling Federation wrote a letter to Ali Jannati, Iran’s Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance, protesting the incident and explaining that the orchestra had been invited to perform at another event in January.

Any such protests risk exposing Iranian citizens to increased scrutiny from security forces and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. While it is too early to tell whether there will be negative consequences to the above-mentioned acts, it seems clear that the citizen-directed counter-trends have not yet had any effect on the Iranian regime’s domestic policy.

Quite the contrary, the crackdown appears to be ongoing. And more than that, Iranian authorities appear to be pushing back themselves, by denying any past wrongdoing and publicly justifying some activities that have made them subject to international derision. For instance, Amnesty International claimed on Tuesday that Tehran had showed deliberate “contempt” for international standards related to children’s rights when it upheld the death sentences for two individuals who had been 15 and 17 years old at the times of their crimes.

The human rights organization points out that the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, both of which Iran has signed, forbid execution of any persons who were below the age of 18 when they committed an offense. Yet the Iranian judiciary has justified its death sentences for Sajad Sanjari and Hamid Ahmadi by applying vague, retroactive tests of “mental maturity.”

Amnesty International also points out that in addition to these two cases, Iran continues to flout international conventions by passing death sentences on juvenile offenders and merely deferring the execution until after they turn 18. As with adult death sentences, some of these juvenile sentences are for crimes that are not considered sufficiently serious by the international community, such as drug trafficking or vague religious crimes like “enmity against God.”