Iran's Crackdown on Dissent Escalates in Run Up to March 2 Elections, Says New Amnesty International Report

Unrest after the Iranian presidential elections in 2009 © Getty Images
News
February 28, 2012

Iran's Crackdown on Dissent Escalates in Run Up to March 2 Elections, Says New Amnesty International Report

Internet and Social Media Seen as Major Threat as Authorities Cut Off Access

Contact: Suzanne Trimel, 212-633-4150, strimel@aiusa.org or
Gwen Fitzgerald, 202-675-8759, gfitzgerald


(New York) -- Iran has unleashed a wave of repression in the lead up to parliamentary elections  this week, Amnesty International reports today, targeting everyone from students, lawyers, religious leaders and bloggers to political activists and their relatives. The authorities have launched a new "cyber army" and blocked internet and social media networks to cut off access to the outside world.

"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. The Iranian government is going to extraordinary lengths to impose a total information blackout on the Iranian population."

The organization's new 71-page report, We Are Ordered To Crush You: Expanding Repression of Dissent in Iran, 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.

Iran's security forces -- including a 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, Middle East and North Africa program. "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."
 
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 Friday (March 2).

The report finds that in recent months a wave of arrests have targeted lawyers, students, journalists, political activists and their relatives, religious and ethnic minorities, filmmakers, and people with international connections, particularly to media.

Opposition leaders Mousavi and Karroubi -- defeated presidential candidates in the 2009 election -- have been under de facto house arrest since February 2011. While Mehdi Karroubi's wife was released in July 2011, Zahra Rahnavard, Mir Hossein Mousavi's wife, remains under house arrest with her husband.

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.

Amnesty International is a Nobel Peace Prize-winning grassroots activist organization with more than 2.8 million supporters, activists and volunteers in more than 150 countries campaigning for human rights worldwide. The organization investigates and exposes abuses, educates and mobilizes the public, and works to protect people wherever justice, freedom, truth and dignity are denied.


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