By William Fisher
Well, the big secret is out: Whatever it takes, Iran is determined to stamp out another season of mass demonstrations railing against the parliamentary elections set for next week.
In fact, for months Iranian authorities have been targeting everyone from students, lawyers, religious leaders and bloggers to political activists and their relatives as they unleash a wave of repression, including a new “cyber army” to block Internet and social media networks, thus cutting off access to the outside world, Amnesty International charged yesterday.
"The Iranian authorities have unleashed their ‘cyber army’ in an effort to cut off their citizens' access to information,” said Suzanne Nossel, executive director of Amnesty International USA.
“Meanwhile those who dare express any unapproved thoughts on the Internet can expect to be slapped with a prison sentence of more than a decade,” she said, adding, “The Iranian government is going to extraordinary lengths to impose a total information blackout on the Iranian population."
These charges are contained in the report, “We Are Ordered To Crush You: Expanding Repression of Dissent in Iran.” The report says “anything from setting up a social group on the Internet, forming or joining an NGO, or expressing opposition to the status quo can land individuals in prison.”
The report documents a wave of arrests in recent months that it said “lays bare the hollowness of Iran’s claim to support protests in the Middle East and North Africa.”
Amnesty also called on the global community “not to allow tensions over Iran’s nuclear program or events in the wider region to distract it from pressing Iran to live up to its human rights obligations.”
Amnesty says Iran’s security forces – including the new cyber police force – can now scrutinize activists as they use personal computers in their own homes. A new and shadowy “cyber army” reportedly linked to the Revolutionary Guards, has carried out attacks on websites at home and abroad, including Twitter and the Voice of America.
“In Iran today you put yourself at risk if you do anything that might fall outside the increasingly narrow confines of what the authorities deem socially or politically acceptable,” said Ann Harrison, Amnesty International’s interim deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa.
“This dreadful record really highlights the hypocrisy of the Iranian government's attempts to show solidarity with protesters in Egypt, Bahrain and other countries in the region.”
Iran’s current actions also confirmed that there will be no change, no “softening,” in the brutal tactics the government employed in the brutal crackdown following parliamentary 2009 elections. In the 2009 demonstrations, Western media were regularly provided with photographs of the violence. Most were taken with cell phone cameras.
In the wake of protests called by opposition leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi in February 2011, the Iranian authorities steadily cranked up repression of dissent and the situation has worsened over the last few months in the lead up to the parliamentary elections this Friday (March 2).
The report finds that in recent months a wave of arrests has targeted lawyers, students, journalists, political activists and their relatives, religious and ethnic minorities, filmmakers, and people with international connections, particularly to media.
Embarrassed and humiliated by the fierce and prolonged protests following the highly controversial 2009 Iranian presidential elections, the Iranian Government has apparently decided to adopt the same strategy should massive protests erupt across Iran next week.
The Iranian government suppressed the protests and stopped the mass demonstrations in 2009, with only very minor flare-ups in 2010. However, not many of the protesters' demands were met. Hundreds of citizens were thrown into jail. Iran’s basij – its motorcycle-borne militia – roamed Tehran and other cities, beating citizens with batons. The government also employed security forces with tear gas, water cannon, rubber bullets and, finally live rounds.
For a time, the protest movement went relatively quiet. Then, the 2010–2011 Arab world protests spread across the Middle East and North Africa. After the ousting of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia on 14 January 2011, millions of people began demonstrating across the region in a broad movement aimed at various issues such as their standards of living or influencing significant reforms, with varying degrees of success. With the successful ousting of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on 11 February 2011 following that of President Ben Ali of Tunisia, renewed protests began in Iran.
On 27 January, the opposition Green Movement of Iran announced a series of protests against the Iranian government scheduled to take place prior to the "Revolution Day" march on 11 February.
On 9 February, various opposition groups in Iran sent a letter to the Ministry of Interior requesting permission to protest under the control of the Iranian police. Permission was refused by the relevant government officials. Despite these setbacks and crackdowns on activists and members of opposition parties, opposition leaders such as Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, called for protests.
On Feb.14, a man displayed a poster of one of those killed during the 2009 election protests. Feb. 15 was publicized as "The Day of Rage". But, the day before the protests were due to begin, opposition leaders Mousavi and Karroubi were placed under house arrest and denied access to telephones and the Internet. Their homes were blockaded and they were not allowed visitors. On 14 February 2011, thousands of protesters began to gather in a solidarity rally with Egypt and Tunisia. There was a large number of police on the streets to keep an eye on the protesters, but thousands were still able to gather together in Tehran's Azadi Square. The number of protesters has been given by different sources, from "thousands" to "hundreds of thousands".
The solidarity protests turned into an anti-government demonstration during which the police fired tear gas and paintballs at protesters. To protect themselves, protesters responded by setting fires in garbage bins. Video footage showed one civilian being violently beaten by a group of protesters. Two protesters were fatally wounded in Tehran. Both were university students. According to reporter Farnaz Fassihi, they were both shot by men on motorcycles who their friends identified as Basij members.
Protests were also reported in the cities of Isfahan and Shiraz, which police forcibly dispersed, as well as in Rasht, Mashhad and Kermanshah.
The protests that occurred on this day marked a setback for the government of Iran, as the regime has campaigned that Mousavi's Green Movement had lost momentum, but the revived uprisings helps prove otherwise.
According to some reports, 1,500 Hezbollah fighters assisted in the suppression of the protests in Azadi Square. Following the initial protests, Hezbollah fighters allegedly continued to participate, assisting local forces in suppressing protests.
On 18 February, thousands of pro-government supporters called for the execution of opposition leaders after Friday prayers. Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati said that the opposition leaders had lost their reputation and are as good as "dead and executed." He said there should be more restrictions on Mousavi and Karroubi. "Their communications with people should be completely cut. They should not be able to receive or send messages. Their phone lines and Internet should be cut. They should be prisoners in their homes”
On February 19, the Interior Minister Mostafa Mohammad-Najjar stated that the protests set for Sunday, February 20, will "be confronted as per the law".
Electronic media is seen as a major threat. In January a senior police officer said Google was an “espionage tool,” not a search engine. The same month, the recently established Cyber Police required owners of Internet cafés to install CCTV and to register the identity of users before allowing them to use computers.
Blogger Mehdi Khazali was this month sentenced to four and a half years in prison, followed by ten years in “internal exile,” and a fine for charges believed to include “spreading propaganda against the system,” “gathering and colluding against national security,” and “insulting officials.” It is not clear whether his “internal exile” will in fact be served in prison.
Having been originally charged in 2011 and released on bail, he was arrested again in January. He is being held in Tehran’s Evin Prison, where he has been on hunger strike for more than 40 days in protest at his detention, raising fears for his health.
Harassment, arrest and imprisonment of human rights defenders, including women’s rights groups, has also intensified and several NGOs have been shut down.
Abdolfattah Soltani, a founder member of the Centre for Human Rights Defenders, was arrested in September and is held in Evin Prison awaiting the outcome of his trial on charges which include his acceptance of an international human rights prize. He has been threatened with a 20-year sentence.
The pressure on independent voices has extended to those outside Iran.
Earlier this month, the BBC said family members of its Persian language service had been subjected to harassment, including one who was arrested in January and held in solitary confinement and others whose passports were confiscated.
Amnesty International said the attacks on dissenting views come against a backdrop of a worsening overall human rights situation in Iran.
There were around four times as many public executions in 2011 as in 2010, a practice that Amnesty International said was used by the authorities to strike fear into society.
Hundreds of people are believed to have been sentenced to death in the past year, mainly for alleged drugs offenses. Iran continues to execute juvenile offenders – a practice strictly prohibited under international law.
Amnesty International called on the international community not to allow tensions over Iran’s nuclear program or events in the wider region to distract it from pressing Iran to live up to its human rights obligations.
"For Iranians facing this level of repression, it can be dispiriting that discussions about their country in diplomatic circles can seem to focus mainly on the nuclear," said Harrison.