Iran's neo-conservatives are restricting access to the Internet, according to international human rights groups. The crackdown is designed to aid a broader Iranian neo-con effort to stifle their reformist opponents.
About half a dozen prominent, reform-oriented activists who use the Internet and Web logs, or blogs, to spread their messages have been detained over the last two months. New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) characterized the wave of arrests in a November 9 statement as an attempt to close "last remaining outlet for freedom of expression in the country."
"The Internet has been a gateway for outreach and information sharing with the Iranian public," said Joe Stork, Washington director of HRW's Middle East and North Africa Division. "With so many NGO (non-governmental organization) activists arrested or under surveillance, the remaining members of civil society fear for their safety."
The November 1 arrest of women's rights activist and journalist Mahboubeh Abbasgholizadeh drew a strong protest from Human Rights First (HRF), formerly known as the Lawyer's Committee for Human Rights. Abbasgholizadeh, editor of the women's rights journal Farzaneh, has long been a leader in the campaign to achieve equal rights for women in such spheres as child custody, inheritance, domestic violence, and divorce. Until a few years ago, Iran's clerical establishment did not interfere with the establishment of non-governmental organizations in these spheres, which were deemed non-political.
"By targeting leaders like Dr. Abbasgholizadeh," said Neil Hicks, HRF's director of international programs, "authorities are erasing divisions between secular and religious Iranian reform activists and demonstrating that they will not permit any dissent."
Women's rights activists frequently focus on more progressive interpretations of Islamic teachings, which can be seen as a challenge to the regime's authority and legitimacy. Abbasgholizadeh was arrested at home after a trip to London to take part in the European Social Forum. She is being held without formal charges.
The information space open to reformists has steadily dwindled over the past few years. Hardliners initially concentrated on eliminating mainstream media, closing down most reform-oriented newspapers and magazines. As the more traditional outlets for activism and free expression disappeared, the Internet took on an increasingly important role for reformists. A rare phenomenon four years ago, Internet usage has recently skyrocketed. The number of regular Internet users increased by an estimated 1,820 percent between 2000 and 2004, according to InternetWorldStats. Though the total number of users as a percentage of the population is still relatively small just over 7 percent Iran's demographic profile indicates that Internet usage is set to grow rapidly. More than half of Iran's population of 69 million is under the age of 25.
Not only well-known activists are feeling the heat. For the first time, judicial authorities are targeting lower-ranking NGO staffers, and contributing Web writers and technicians as well. Among these arrests, the October 10 detention of Omid Memarian, a journalist and civil society activist who ran a blog in English and Farsi, has sparked strong concern. Amnesty International cited Memarian's refusal of his right to an attorney as "a reflection of the ill treatment he is currently facing." His detention, the human rights organization commented, sent shock waves throughout Iran's civil society community.
"We're talking about rank-and-file activists working on social and cultural issues," Human Rights Watch's Stork said. "Their basic freedoms are being sacrificed as conservative leaders try to purge critics from society."
Although no formal charges have been brought, a spokesman for Iran's judiciary in October accused detainees of spreading "propaganda against the regime, endangering national security, inciting public unrest, and insulting sacred belief," according to the HRW statement. The head of Iran's judiciary later indicated the detainees would be charged with "moral crimes."
On November 15, reformists received some encouraging news when four web technicians detained in connection with the crackdown were released on bail. However, security officials provided no indication that others would be released from custody.
Some detainees have reportedly been prevented from meeting with their attorney, and are being held in solitary confinement. Amnesty International has charged that these moves show that "Iran's judiciary is turning its back on the international human rights standards it has promised the international community that it will uphold."
On November 5, Canada and 33 other countries echoed that charge with a draft resolution in the United Nations General Assembly that called on Tehran to uphold international human rights standards. "We believe that Iran needs to hear from the global community that change is necessary," the IranMania web site quoted Canadian Foreign Minister Pierre Pettigrew as saying. Canada has taken a growing interest in the fate of Iranian reformists since the 2003 death of photojournalist Zahra Kazemi, a Canadian of Iranian origin, who was arrested in Tehran and reportedly beaten to death in prison.
Jim Lobe is a freelance reporter specializing in financial affairs. He is based in Washington.