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December 21, 2004

Iran Tries to Quell Internet Media Wave

by Jim Lobe

Iran's judiciary has threatened Internet journalists with torture and prison if they do not renounce accusations that authorities abused members of the electronic media and dissidents who were rounded up months ago.

According to New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW), the chief prosecutor of Tehran, Judge Saeed Mortazavi, threatened three recently released detainees with severe punishment if they did not cooperate with him in preparing a libel case against Ali Mazroi, the president of the Association of Iranian Journalists.

Charges of torture and coerced confessions are not new in Iran, where conservatives have been emboldened to act against their perceived foes by their sweep of parliamentary elections last March and the continuing conflict in neighboring Iraq, where nearly 150,000 U.S. troops remain bogged down 20 months after they ousted Iran's arch-foe, Saddam Hussein, from power.

Washington's repeated demands that Tehran forgo its nuclear program, which U.S. officials say is aimed at acquiring a nuclear weapon within the next several years, has also reportedly bolstered the conservatives' position within Iran, despite perceptions here that the clerical regime remains broadly unpopular.

Its unpopularity is repeatedly cited by U.S. hawks as evidence that the country is ripe for "regime change." They have argued in favor of openly or covertly supplying aid to exiled and internal opposition groups as a way of mobilizing the discontent. But such a move, according to a number of Iran experts, could backfire by enabling the conservatives to rally the country against foreign intervention.

While Washington is particularly concerned about Iran's nuclear program and its alleged interference in Iraq, it has also spoken out on the human rights situation, particularly the recent crackdown.

Conservatives, cantered mainly in the judiciary have largely shut down most of Iran's independent mass media, particularly reformist newspapers and magazines, over the past year. 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 seven percent – Iran's demographic profile indicates that Internet usage is set to grow rapidly. More than half of the nation's population of 69 million is under the age of 25.

The most recent crackdown has been aimed particularly at Internet journalists.

In a public letter to President Mohammed Khatami on Dec. 10, Mazroi, who is a former reformist member of parliament, had himself implicated the judiciary in the torture and secret detention of more than 20 Internet journalists and civil society activists during a crackdown that began in early September. One of those detained was Mazroi's son.

The following day, Mortazavi filed charges against Mazroi and ordered that three Internet journalists – Omid Memarian, Shahram Rafizadeh, and Ruzbeh Ebrahimi – be detained as witnesses for the prosecution, according to HRW.

The three journalists and a fourth, Javed Ghlam Tamayomi, who had been in detention since Oct. 18, were brought to the prosecutor's office.

According to HRW's account, Mortazavi threatened the four with lengthy prison terms and torture if they did not publicly deny Mazroi's charges, and they were subsequently interrogated for the following three days.

On Dec. 14, the four were taken to a televised press conference to deny they had been subject to solitary confinement, torture or any ill treatment during their earlier confinement. Tapes from the conference were subsequently aired on government-controlled television in what HRW charged was a transparent effort to whitewash what had in fact taken place.

One of the detainees said he had been held in a 30 square-meter room with a color television while another said their jailer handled them as "gently as flowers."

"If there are credible charges against these journalists, the judiciary should hold fair trials instead of forcing them to appear on television and say their torturers treated them well," said Joe Stork, HRW's Middle East director, from Washington.

In a report released two weeks ago, the rights group charged that secret squads of interrogators – primarily former intelligence officers who were purged in the late-1990s by Khatami's reformist administration but now employed by the judiciary – forced detainees to write self-incriminatory "confessionary letters," under "extreme pressure as a condition for their release on bail."

The confessions, added HRW, were designed to "destroy individuals' reputations, sow discord among activists, and ultimately shut down all independent voices and organizations."

Consistent with Mortazavi's actions in the pending libel case, these confessions also included assertions that the prisoners had not been mistreated during their detention.

But HRW said it had obtained "detailed information" about the torture and solitary confinement of the detainees at a secret center near Tehran. Held in small cells for up to three months, the detainees, it said, were subjected to torture, including beatings with electrical cables, and interrogations that lasted up to 11 hours at a stretch.

Throughout their ordeal, the prisoners were denied access to lawyers and medical care, although family visits were permitted in rare cases. They were often threatened with the arrest of family members and friends if they failed to cooperate, and a number of them reportedly became suicidal, HRW said.

The detainees were interrogated by the same person, an operative who used the pseudonym "Keshavarz" who was, in turn, backed up by a magistrate known as "Mehdipoor."

"Both the interrogator and magistrate repeatedly delivered messages and threats to the detainees on behalf of Judge Mortazavi," HRW said.

The group's accounts have been backed up by Paris-based Reporters Without Borders, which also denounced last week's television confessions as "pathetic and grotesque. These testimonies," it said, "are pointless as there is abundant evidence of the mental and physical harassment of journalists."

"These detainees had been detained and tortured by secret squads apparently taking orders from Judge Mortazavi himself," said Stork in his statement. "Mortazavi obviously has a lot at stake in covering up his role in this affair."

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    Jim Lobe, works as Inter Press Service's correspondent in the Washington, D.C., bureau. He has followed the ups and downs of neo-conservatives since well before their rise in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

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