Such calls to action have presumably intensified the clerical regime’s paranoia about public gatherings and expressions of dissent. And while organized protests may be at a lower level compared to December and January, the regime’s repression against activist movements and potential organizers is ongoing. This was evident on Thursday from reports that 43 people were being newly indicted in the western province of Kermanshah for their participation in the January uprising.
In addition to reporting upon the judiciary’s announcement, Radio Farda indicated that Iranian officials had used the occasion to reiterate their propagandist claims regarding the nature of the recent demonstrations. Public prosecutor Mohammad Hossein Sadeghi boasted that the indictments represented only a small minority of the arrests. The other arrestees, he insisted, had only participated in the demonstrations “out of ignorance” and had consequently been released.
Of those who were being indicted, Sadeghi said they had acted under the influence of “cyberspace.” Such remarks are no doubt intended to rekindle debates over the future of the internet and social media in Iran’s heavily censored media landscape. Facebook and Twitter are already banned across the country, although tech-savvy Iranians routinely gain access to them via technical work-arounds. While the December and January protests were at their height, the extremely popular messaging app Telegram was alternately banned and heavily filtered, and there was reportedly some disagreement about whether these measures would be made permanent.
Even now, Iranian hardliners are pushing for a permanent ban on Telegram, with some framing it in terms of the move toward a “National Information Network” or “halalnet” that would only allow government-approved content to be accessed through servers in the Islamic Republic.
The mentality behind this push for more comprehensive censorship was highlighted in another Radio Farda report on Wednesday, this one dealing with the dangerous environment for journalists inside Iran. The report quoted Reza Moeinei, the head of the Iran desk at Reporters Without Borders (RSF), as saying, “The problem with the Islamic Republic’s authorities is their security approach toward journalism and media. They do not recognize independent journalism and want to eliminate it. They want all reporters at the government’s command.”
This mentality has secured Iran’s status as one of the nations with the least press freedom. According to the latest RSF report, during the previous year Iran was one of the 15 most dangerous countries for journalists, and one of the five largest prisons for journalists in the world. But the rapid growth of the recent anti-government demonstrations, along with the subsequent public awareness about them, demonstrates that the growing availability of the internet and social media threatens to undermine the effects of this media repression.
This point was underscored on Wednesday by an editorial written by the Iranian-born activist Masih Alinejad and published in the Washington Post. It described vivid death threats she had received from a leading figure in Iran’s basij militia, in response to her ongoing campaigns against the laws which make the hijab mandatory for all women in Iran. Those campaigns have effectively utilized social media, as by encouraging women to post pictures of themselves without their head covering. The “My Stealthy Freedom” movement later gave rise to “White Wednesdays,” with the color white representing solidarity in opposition to sexist laws.
In late December, around the time of the nationwide protests, an image of one Iranian woman holding her white hijab at the end of a stick went viral, spurring another movement called “Girls of Revolution Street.” Approximately 30 people have since been arrested for participating in the movement. And as reported by the Women’s Committee of the National Council of Resistance of Iran, a one-year sentence was handed down this week for one of those participants, Maryam Shariatmadari, who was also injured by an arresting officer at the time of her protest. She is at least the second “Girl of Revolution Street” to be confined to prison for “encouraging corruption by removing her veil.”
The regime’s backlash against this and other peaceful protest movements led Alinejad to conclude in her editorial, “As far as Iran is concerned, the biggest threat comes not from the United States, but from unveiled women like me who fight for their rights.” But of course there are a number of other marginalized groups in the Islamic Republic, whose activism could pose a similar threat. Many of these were out in force during the January uprising, which the NCRI described as being free of ethnic slogans and thus representative of an anti-government sentiment that spans most demographics.
Marginalized groups include both ethnic and religious minorities, as well as entire rural communities that have been harmed by government corruption and mismanagement. On Thursday, Reuters pointed to ongoing protests over water rights as evidence that the mismanagement of natural resources was one motivating factor behind the recent uprising. The report also noted that environmental activists have been a particular target of the regime’s repression in recent weeks, with Kavous Seyed-Emami of the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation having died in custody following a mass arrest of such activists.
Reuters reported that the regime’s crackdown on protests by farmers and neglected victims of water scarcity is ongoing. The same is true of crackdowns on minority groups, as evidenced by other recent reports.
The CHRI noted that property belonging to a once-prominent Iranian Christian church was in the process of being confiscated by an organization under the control of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. The closure of that church was justified in large part by a 2010 speech in which Khamenei declared that Persian-language churches were gateways to foreign infiltration. But as with the accusations of foreign influence in the recent protests, these claims are widely viewed as efforts to undermine domestic threats to the regime’s hardline Islamist identity.
Also on Thursday, Amnesty International issued an urgent call to action over the situation facing members of another Iranian religious minority, the Gonabadi dervishes. Thousands of its members protested outside of the home of their leader in February, out of fear that he would be arrested in the midst of the post-uprising crackdown. And as with that broader crackdown, the consequences of those protests continue to the present day.
According to Amnesty, eleven female members of the Sufi sect have been arbitrarily transferred to Shahr-e Rey Prison, “a disused chicken farm that holds hundreds of women convicted of violent offences in conditions falling far below the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners.” The report also notes that some of those women, who have been detained without charge since the February protests, are in need of medical care but have not been allowed to receive it.
This refers to a tactic of repression that is currently being used against dozens of political prisoners, according to a report on the practice published on Wednesday by the CHRI. The article highlights three specific cases, one involving an inmate who has lost 57 pounds, one who has suffered a seizure and recurring heart problems, and one who is suffering from injuries incurred at the hands of the prison guards as they exert pressure on him in an effort to compel his brother to present himself for arrest.
The CHRI report notes that the cellmates of one of these individuals have said that if he dies from his condition, they are willing to testify “that the state killed him.” But the regime’s ongoing repression often extends beyond causing detainees’ deaths in an indirect fashion. On Thursday, the NCRI reported that Ali Savari, an Arab detainee at Shayban Prison had apparently been tortured to death.
At least 14 other detainees have died under similar circumstances since the end of 2017, and in many cases their families have been warned against speaking about the incident or pursuing independent autopsies. In the case of Mr. Savari, an impromptu demonstration by relatives and friends outside the prison led to 30 more arrests on Wednesday, following what the NCRI described as yet another brutal attack on a peaceful gathering.