As the prospect of a deal to curb Iran’s nuclear program comes closer, Tehran is struggling to break out of its international isolation.
At the same time, it is casting an ever-wider net to ensnare Iranians who want to connect with the world and each other through social media.
The latest victim is Mohammad Yousefi, a 27-year-old graduate student who was seized from his home Dec. 10, and is said to be “under strong pressure” to give a forced video confession that could result in a death sentence. The arrest was made under a draconian new program called Spider, meant to root out people who manage social media chat rooms on platforms such as Facebook.
“He is in solitary confinement without any visiting rights, so it’s impossible to tell what condition he is in,” said an acquaintance of Yousefi, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Fears for his life increased when the Revolutionary Guards, who control the Cyber Police, published his initials on their website, along with accusations of managing “fake” Facebook pages and ridiculing the most sacred figures of Shiite Islam, a crime that may be punishable by hanging.
Torture and forced confession are common in Iran. Yousefi’s arrest follows a death sentence for Facebook user Sohail Arabic, a 30-year-old who was arrested last September for “insults to the Prophet.” His appeal was rejected by the Iranian Supreme Court in spite of protests by human rights groups.
Meanwhile, Canadian resident Saeed Malekpour is serving a life sentence on similar charges after being arrested during a family visit in 2008.
Yousefi is reportedly under additional pressure as a friend of award-winning activist Majid Tavakoli, a fellow student at Amirkabir University of Technology, where Yousefi is studying for an MBA. Both had been jailed during protests in the 2009 “Green Revolution,” but Yousefi was released after five months with a suspended sentence.
Since Yousefi’s release, his acquaintance said, “he has been very careful to stay away from any kind of activism or political activity. He may have used Facebook, like millions of other people, but it was very shocking to see that he was suspected of these crimes.”
Unmarried, Yousefi is described as “outgoing, smart and busy with his studies.” Petitions have been launched for his release.
“His arrest is very concerning,” said Gissou Nia of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, whose recent report Internet in Chains details Iran’s deepening control over electronic communications. “It’s the first arrest under the Revolutionary Guards’ Spider program. It shows the state is becoming much heavier in its control of the Internet.”
Nia said that even senior officials, including the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei — who made a public appearance Sunday amid rumours about his health — freely use Twitter and other banned social media. But authorities fear that in an information-hungry public, the trend is “spinning out of control. Any tweet can be sent millions of times over. It’s not like radio and TV, where you can easily block them.”
The severity of the penalties, incomprehensible in the West, are based on deliberately vague religious laws that allow for silencing of suspected opponents of the regime.
“Criminal laws in Iran are designed in such a way that a defendant might receive a heavy sentence for a small crime,” says Iranian-born human rights lawyer Mohammad Olyaeifard. “On the other hand, he might receive a nominal sentence for a serious crime. The severity of the punishment is dependant on the political conditions in the country.”
At the end of May, eight people were handed a combined 123 years in jail for insulting Khamenei. Since then, dozens of Facebook users have received lengthy sentences, and two were sentenced to 50 lashes each as well as jail terms. In October, Iran’s prosecutor general, Gholam-Hossein Mohseni Ejei, ordered a ban on WhatsApp, Viber and Tango, which have been used to circulate cynical jokes about the clerical regime.
A Revolutionary Guards cyber specialist, Mostafa Alizadeh, issued a statement last month denouncing Facebook users for promoting “pornographic and immoral content” as well as making “jokes about the sacred.”
“The mission of these pages is to complain and whine about any issue that happens in the country in a joke format,” he warned. “Anti-revolutionary networks take advantage of this whining and use it as a tool for mass distribution of rumours.”