By Professor Lord Alton of Liverpool
Lord Alton says activists in Iran continue to be in "extreme danger", but will not be defeated by government violence.
Recently, a representative of the Iranian cybercrimes police took to the country’s state media to boast of the regime’s successes in disrupting peaceful networks on Instagram and other social media. This brought Western media attention to a series of arrests that had taken place in March as part of a sting operation called “Spider II.” The Iranian internet has turned into a cultural battleground where secular, pro-democratic ideas are aggressively battled by the Iranian regime.
Eight models were arrested as part of this crackdown, for the crime of posting images of themselves without their legally mandated head scarves. Another 21 individuals have criminal cases pending against them as a result of the same sting operation.
While it’s difficult to confirm the Iranian government’s claims about the extent of the crackdown, the rhetoric surrounding it is alone sufficient to raise the spectre of arrest and persecution for anyone who was involved in similar activities on Instagram or on the internet in general. These activities include not only modelling, but also photography, fashion design, make-up artistry, and blogging. Persons from each of these professions were noted to have been swept up in Spider II.
The danger of arrest is omnipresent in the Islamic Republic of Iran if one’s professional or personal activities are out of step with the fundamentalist zealous ideology that the regime mandates for all of its people. But that danger grows tremendously once a person has been identified by government agents. The regime has a penchant for repeated arrests of activists, and also of other political prisoners who have been arrested in the past for expressing dissent, speak up against the apparent injustice or for indicating secular leanings.
The danger now posed to Instagram models and their supporters is a serious one. Iranian citizens have been given extremely long prison sentences for much less. In 2014, the young cartoonist Atena Farghadani was arrested and subsequently sentenced to 12 years in prison for the crime of posting a single cartoon to Facebook depicting Iranian officials as animals and protesting laws and policies restricting women’s rights. Although her sentence was recently commuted to 18 months, in light of Tehran’s track record for repeat arrests, it is for sure that Farghadani will now be looking over her shoulder for the rest of her life or until the theocratic regime comes to an end.
In his statement to the UN Human Rights Council - Session 31- on March 14, 2016, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Iran, Dr. Ahmed Shaheed, said: “At least 966 persons — the highest rate in over two decades — were executed in 2015. At least 73 juvenile offenders were reportedly executed between 2005 and 2015. In the past two years alone, 16 juvenile offenders were executed. At present, at least 160 others are awaiting the same fate on death row.”
Yet that is not as bad as it gets. About two months prior to Farghadani’s arrest, another activist named Gholamreza Khosravi was hanged in Rajai Shahr prison for the crime of “enmity against God”. His conviction on this charge stemmed solely from his contributing money to a satellite television sympathetic to the Iranian opposition movement, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK).
While the PMOI still maintains an extensive activist and intelligence network inside Iran, its overall experience is indicative of the extreme danger posed by such activists. Some 120,000 of PMOI activists and supporters have been executed or assassinated since the inception of the Islamic Republic in 1979. And the constant pressure exerted on others and on their families has caused a great many to flee to Western Europe, North America, and elsewhere. The PMOI makes up the largest constituent group of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), led by a Muslim woman, Maryam Rajavi.
But it is important that readers not mistake any of the above accounts for accounts of the defeat of activism inside of Iran. Although much of the country’s progressive youth was forced underground in the wake of the repression of the uprisings in 2009, the latest cyberspace crackdown goes to show that such repression has by no means stopped people from voicing their opposition to the regime’s restrictive ideology.
Some of those expressions are relatively private, as with Instagram modelling. Other expressions are still avowedly public, in the form of labour rights protests and gatherings outside of prisons by the families and friends of the regime’s many political prisoners.
Still other acts of dissent take place outside of the country, but strive to put greater pressure on the regime by speaking out from beyond the reach of its domestic repression. These include the protests that were organised in part by the NCRI to coincide with recent Iranian state visits with prospective European trading partners. In one case, the mere plans for this protest compelled the Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to cancel a planned trip to Vienna, lest it face the embarrassment of public exposure for the persistence of human rights abuses.
And on July 9, the NCRI will be holding a major gathering of Iranian expatriates and political supporters in Paris called “Free Iran”. Last year’s event drew a crowd of approximately 100,000 people, and this year’s is expected to exceed that figures, thus signifying the persistence of Iranian activism.
There should be little doubt that we will see more indicators of the same perseverance in the run-up to this event. By the same token, we will surely see more crackdowns similar to the arrest of the Instagram models, as well as more of the regime’s boasting about that repression. But such boasting is hollow. The regime’s need to keep returning to the same repressive tactics only goes to show that every instance of repression has led to renewed push-back from an increasingly restive population. The persistence of both activism and repression indicates that there is no end in sight for the conflict between the Iranian people and the clerical regime that struggles every day to make them submit to its fundamentalist ideology.
This article first appeared in PoliticsHome