In at least a portion of the relevant interrogation sessions, individuals were questioned over the protests that erupted in dozens of Iranian cities at the end of December and through much of January. The same activists were also pressed for information about their activities on the popular messaging app, Telegram, which was widely credited with helping to spread the protests and was accordingly filtered and blocked by regime authorities while those protests were ongoing.
These lines of questioning and the possible charges that could follow behind them are among the latest indicators that Tehran is still very much invested in a crackdown on dissent and particularly on persons who are suspected of having a role in the nationwide demonstrations. As well as being unusual for their geographic reach and the involvement of diverse demographics including farmers and poor, rural Iranians, those protests also gave rise to virtually unprecedented political slogans such as “death to the dictator,” thus allowing them to be characterized as calls for regime change.
In light of that messaging, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei publicly acknowledged that the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran, a longstanding advocate of regime change, had played a leading role in the demonstrations. Subsequently, the PMOI’s parent coalition and its President Maryam Rajavi issued statements urging more protests in the run-up to the Iranian New Year holiday of Nowruz. Rajavi also declared that the year ahead “can and must be made into a year full of uprisings.”
The NCRI has argued that authorities’ aggressive crackdown on all public gatherings in recent weeks is indicative of their serious concern about the public’s prospective response to such calls-to-action. The CHRI report further highlighted this apparent anxiety, pointing out that many of those who were recently summoned for questioning were also put under pressure “to avoid any activities and plans during Nowruz.”
Additionally, CHRI quoted a source as saying, “Every year, civil rights workers hold Nowruz ceremonies in various cities but none of them were allowed to do it this year. The authorities designated their own places for holding ceremonies approved by the state. We’ve never had this problem before. This was the first time.”
Some of those ceremonies were specifically targeted for being “un-Islamic.” These included regional and ethnic traditions like those associated with some members of the Kurdish minority. CHRI notes that the Kurdish regions of Iran were also given particular emphasis in the authorities’ latest round of summons. Large numbers of summons and subsequent charges were issued in West Azerbaijan, Kermanshah, Ilam, and Kurdistan.
Sanandaj, the capital of Kurdistan, made headlines during the January protests when two local residents, Saro Ghahremani and Kianoosh Zandi, went missing and were later described by authorities as having been killing in a police shootout. This account was widely disputed, with some sources saying they were shot dead while in a car and others professing that their bodies showed signs of torture. According to the NCRI, at least 14 people have been tortured to death after being arrested for protests in December and January.
The case of Ghahremani and Zandi, together with the recent summons, is arguably indicative of the regime’s particular interest in suppressing minority groups in the midst of broader crackdowns on dissent. This phenomenon is also illustrated by the ongoing tensions between Iranian authorities and the Sufi religious sect known as Gonabadi dervishes.
Several hundred dervishes gathered near the home of their leader Noor Ali Tabandeh on February 19 out of fear that he would be arrested alongside other rights activists as part of the regime’s ongoing response to the January uprising. The gatherings quickly gave rise to clashes with security forces, and three officers were killed by a bus that was alleged driven by one of the dervishes. That individual, Yavar Mohammad Salas, has since been sentenced to death, though he claims the killings were accidental. Approximately 350 other participants in the protests were arrested separately, and the latest report from IranWire indicates that the fate of many of these persons is unknown.
What is known, however, is that security personnel are now attempting to link other dervishes to the bus incident and to charge them with accessory to murder, or worse. Some arrestees have reportedly been put under pressure to confess, with interrogators even threatening to rape one man’s pregnant wife.
Even among those who were arrested solely for participating in the demonstrations, many continue to suffer from injuries incurred during the clashes, for which medical treatment has been withheld. That situation has been made worse by the fact that the protestors’ terms of detention have been arbitrarily extended, sometimes even after their families posted bail. As a result, the families and friends of many detainees have been gathering outside of various Justice Ministry buildings in hopes of obtaining information about those who are still being held incommunicado.
The regime’s reticence about releasing detainees is contrary to authorities’ public claims about having released the vast majority of participants in the January uprising. In fact, as reports continue to accumulate, there is a case to be made that the ranks of protestor-detainees are increasing rather than shrinking. On Wednesday, for instance, the chief prosecutor of Kermanshah Province announced that 43 people had been indicted in the province’s capital city alone for their role in the anti-government protests.
In reporting on this, the Center for Human Rights in Iran noted that the announcement came after a previous announcement that in the capital city of Tehran, 41 students of Tehran University had been brought up on charges for the same offense. CHRI highlighted this as just one example of the regime’s effort to crack down on protest-related activism. It called attention to a broader report on the subject and particularly to the blockage of Telegram and other internet resources while the protests were still ongoing.
These censorship efforts are also still ongoing, alongside the arrests and prosecutions of participants and would-be participants. As Al Jazeera reported on Sunday, the chairman of the Iranian parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Commission, Alaeddin Boroujerdi, recently announced that Telegram would soon be blocked permanently, despite the earlier decision to restore full access after the protests had been effectively suppressed.
The lifting of restrictions was reportedly motivated by the prevalence of Telegram among Iranian merchants and businesses, but Boroujerdi described the app as a threat to national security and said that the decision had been made “at the highest levels of government” to direct Telegram users toward domestic alternatives that could purportedly fill the same roles while only allowing content that is approved by Tehran.