Bloggers are in trouble in the Middle East — and when dealing with the Middle East.
You can get in big trouble for speaking out, in this part of the world.
A few recent examples:
(1) In Iran, four bloggers have been sentenced to lashes and jail terms, according to Rooz Online here, as picked up by Gateway Pundit here.
The four were among 17 persons arrested in September 2004, and detained for several months, during which time they said they were held in solitary confinement and tortured.
Rooz Online reported today that the sentences were “signed by ‘Judge Hosseini’ and … reveal that the defendants were charged with ‘authoring and publishing articles in counter-revolutionary blogs and websites’.”
The bloggers were released within weeks of their arrests in 2004, according to Rooz Online, following “widespread protests from the Association of Iranian journalists, international human rights organizations and the-then president Mohammad Khatami”. After publicly describing the conditions of their detention and the torture they say they experienced, the bloggers then met with the head of Iran’s judiciary, Ayatollah Shahroudi, on October 6, 2004.
Rooz Online added that “The details of that meeting have not yet been published but Mohammad Khatami’s deputy, Mohammad Ali Abtahi, wrote on his blog at the time that, after hearing the details of tortures the bloggers were subjected to and threats received by their families, Ayatollah Shahroudi was visibly shaken and ordered for officers in charge of the case to be prosecuted. A day after the meeting, Jamal Karimi-Rad, former judiciary spokesperson said that Ayatollah Shahroudi has ordered the case to be taken away from Tehran’s Prosecutor General and appointed a 3-man committee to investigate the matter. The next month, the head of Tehran’s court system, Abasali Alizadeh, told ISNA and IRNA, ‘Certain officers and judiciary’s officials committed violations throughout the case, including in extracting confessions from defendants’.”
Just recently, however, the four received their sentences.
According to Rooz Online: “Rouzbeh Mir Ebrahimi received a 2 year and 2 day prison sentence plus 84 lashes for “membership in illegal groups,” “propaganda against regime,” “insulting supreme leader,” “spreading lies” and “disrupting public order”. He told Rooz Online that he will appeal, and said that the verdict “is based only on previous confessions which were extracted under torture and in solitary confinement”.
Another defendant, journalist and blogger Omid Memarian, was sentenced “to 2.5 years behind bars and 10 lashes and 500 thousand Tomans in fines for ‘membership in illegal groups’, ‘participation in illegal groups’, ‘propaganda against regime’, ‘spreading lies’ and ‘possession of playing cards’, which the judge refers to as ‘gambling tools’.”
Memarian told Rooz Online that “I was shocked to hear about the sentence because after our meeting at the Constitutional Oversight Committee and explaining the events that transpired during our detention in a meeting we had with Ayatollah Shahroudi, the chief judge promised us to close the case and that he would rebuke individuals who had committed illegal and in certain cases perverted actions during our detention … Mr. Shahroudi asked us to refrain revealing to the media the details of what had transpired during our detention and that he would resolve the case. Apparently though Mr. Shahroudi lacks the power to implement his orders and our trust in him was unwarranted. … The officers who interrogated me and extracted the confessions that they wanted while I was held in solitary confinement under all kinds of physical and psychological pressures were sexual and mental abusers … I told Mr. Shahroudi that not just in my case, but in no one’s case should these individuals be left alone in the room with anyone, because they are mentally unstable and capable of doing things that no mentally sane and stable person is able to do. After two months of being subjected to torture in solitary confinement, our lives have never returned to its initial condition because of that dark time’s psychological pressures”.
Another defendant, Javad Gholam Tamimi, was sentenced to 3 years and 3 months in prison and 10 lashes for “membership in illegal groups,” “treason against country,” “propaganda against regime” and “spreading lies”.
And Shahram Rafizadeh was sentenced to 9 months in prison and 20 lashes for “membership in illegal groups,” “propaganda against regime,” “spreading lies” and “disrupting public order”.
Meanwhile, on 1 November, The Times of London reported twenty days later, “A prominent Iranian blogger, nicknamed the Blogfather for spawning Iran’s spectacular blogging revolution, has been arrested in Tehran and accused of spying for Israel”. The article described Hossein Derakhshan (who blogs under the name of Hoder, and whose blog is called Editor:Myself) as “a 33-year-old techno-wizard”, who was last based in London after spending several years in Canada, where he moved in 2000 with his Iranian-Canadian wife from who he has since split, after reformist newspapers for which he wrote in Tehran were closed by hardline opponents of the moderate former Iranian president, Mohammad Khatami. Derakhshan, The Times reported, had recently returned to live in Iran just a few weeks before he was arrested. He began blogging in 2001 from Toronto in Farsi and English, The Times said, “and devised a simple but groundbreaking way to show Persian letters and characters on the Internet — a protocol that enabled Iran to become one of the world’s most prolific blogging nations. Until his recent move home, Mr Derakhshan had returned only once to Iran since emigrating. Visiting to cover presidential elections in 2005, he was prevented from leaving the country for a week and interrogated by police. They told him that his blog was addressing too many taboo subjects and chided him for helping Iranians to skirt Internet censorship. He was allowed to leave after being forced to sign an apology. According to some Iranian reports today, Mr Derakhshan told his interrogators that other reformist journalists had been encouraged to leave Iran to write against the regime in return for money. Most of these ‘misled people’ were now working as impecunious barbers, drivers and waiters in exile, he is alleged to have said”. Interestingly, Derakhshan travelled on a Canadian passport to Israel on a “highly-publicised trip” in 2006, according to The Times, “on a mission to show his ‘20,000 daily Iranian readers what Israel really looks like and how people live there’. He also wanted to ‘humanise’ Iranians for Israelis … ‘This might mean that I won’t be able to go back to Iran for a long time, since Iran doesn’t recognise Israel, has no diplomatic relations with it, and apparently considers travelling there illegal’, he wrote. ‘Too bad, but I don’t care. Fortunately, I am a citizen of Canada and I have the right to visit any country I like’. Commentators in Israel, however, noted Mr Derakhshan recently had become ‘vehemently anti-Israel in his blog’.” This article can be read in full here.
It is not clear what has happened to Derakhshan — after some follow-up reporting that he was still in jail at the end of December, there has been nothing more since — and Derakhshan’s blogs are offline.
Reporters without Borders has this information on its website about four other Iranian bloggers who have been imprisoned:
“29 11 2008 – Mojtaba Lotfi, Online journalist, condemned to 4 years in prison for disseminating the views of Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri and for ‘publicity against the government’.
6 12 2008 – Esmail Jafari, blogger and journalist based in the southwestern city of Bushehr, was meanwhile sentenced to five months in prison on charges of ‘anti-government publicity’ and ‘disseminating information abroad’.
[no date] Shahnaz Gholami, Founder of Azar Zan blog (http://azarwomen.blogfa.com/)
7 02 2009 – Omidreza Mirsayafi, Blogger (http://rooznegaar.blogfa.com)”
This information can be viewed online here.
Amnesty International issued a public statement of concern on 15 December, which noted that “Hossein Derakhshan holds dual Iranian-Canadian nationality. He travelled to Iran at the end of October on a travel document issued by Iran’s embassy in Paris as the country does not recognize dual nationality. He continued to blog while in Iran, up to the time of his arrest on 1 November. Reports indicate that he was arrested at his family home by six plain clothed officials who are said to have had a search warrant. Following a search, his computer and other personal possessions were removed and he was taken to an unknown destination. Reports indicate that he is held under the authority of Branch 1 of the Tehran Revolutionary Court and though not charged, he is believed to be facing accusations of ”insulting religion’, possibly in his blogs … [U]nder article 513 of Iran’s Penal Code, offences considered to amount to an ‘insult’ to religion can be punished by death or prison terms of between one and five years. Article 698 of the Penal Code concerns the intentional creation of ‘anxiety and unease in the public’s mind’, ‘false rumours’ or writing about ‘acts which are not true’, even if it is a quotation, and provides for between two months and two years’ imprisonment or up to 74 lashes” …
This statement can be read in full here.
And, the International PEN movement issued a statement of concern about Derakhshan on 15 January:
“The Writers in Prison Committee of International PEN is seriously concerned about the detention of Iranian-Canadian journalist and weblogger Hossein Derakhshan, who has been held since 1 November 2008. The reason for his detention remains unclear, and he is not thought to have been formally charged. His whereabouts are unknown. International PEN fears that he may be held solely for the peaceful exercise of his right to free expression, and therefore in violation of Article 19 of the United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Iran is a signatory. It calls for his immediate and unconditional release and also seeks assurances of his well-being as a matter of urgency. According to PEN’s information, Hossein Derakhshan was arrested from his family home in Tehran on 1 November 2008 shortly after returning to Iran from several years living in Canada and the United Kingdom. The authorities did not officially acknowledge his detention until 30 December 2008. Initial reports suggested that he was accused of ‘spying for Israel … However, it has also been suggested that he faces accusations of ‘insulting religion’ in his weblogs … Hossein Derakhshan is held incommunicado at an unknown location, and there are mounting concerns for his well-being. International PEN is alarmed about an apparent crackdown on dissent in recent weeks, including the harassment of writer, human rights defender and Nobel Laureate Shirin Ebadi, who in mid-December condemned Derakhshan’s arrest”. This can be found posted here.
(2) Kabobfest blog reported that Tabula Gaza blogger Philip Rizk, of Egyptian-German descent, was detained on 6 February with a group of demonstrators by Egyptian authorities last week after organizing a protest against recent events in Gaza — but Rizk is the only one still being held. Kalash reported on Kabobfest that “Human rights lawyers arrived to help the activists but Rizk was snuck out of the prison’s backdoor of and taken away. According to a Reuters report, he was put in an unmarked car with no license plates; police also blocked his companions’ vehicle to prevent them from following. A Facebook group set up by his friends and family explains further: Phil’s parents went to the police headquarters to file a missing persons complaint. There they were told it might take 2 or 3 days to process the paperwork and get Philip out… he is being held by National Security at their headquarters in downtown Cairo. But of course there are no official charges”. This account can be read in full here
UPDATE: On Wednesday 10 February, Rizk was released. The New York Times reported that
“For nearly four straight days, Philip Rizk said he was blindfolded, handcuffed and interrogated around the clock by Egyptian state security agents who had abducted him Friday after he participated in a march in support of Gaza. Early Wednesday morning, with neither warning nor explanation, he was driven home and dropped off, without having been charged. ‘They said I was a liar, that I was not telling them the truth, threatening me that I would be punished in certain ways unless I gave them the whole story’, Mr. Rizk said of his interrogators in a telephone interview on Wednesday … Mr. Rizk began on Wednesday to describe his ordeal. He said that he was repeatedly interrogated and described the police as aggressive, threatening and in search of something to charge him with. They alternately accused him of being a spy for Israel and of running arms for Hamas, two obviously incompatible roles. He said he was never beaten or physically abused, though he was blindfolded for about 100 hours, he said” … This story can be read in full here
UPDATE: The NYTimes and Haaretz (picking up a story from Reuters) reported that another Egyptian blogger has been beaten and arrested.
Haaretz said that “A statement from the Cairo-based Arabic Network for Human Rights Information said police officers on Friday beat Diaa Eddin Gad in front of his house in the Nile Delta province of Gharbiya, put him in a police car and drove off … Gamal Eid, director of the Network, described Gad as a member of the liberal Wafd party and the Kefaya (Enough) protest movement, and said he had attended protests against the recent 22-day Israeli offensive on the Gaza Strip. Gad’s website Sawt Ghadib or ‘An Angry Voice’ contains pro-Gaza slogans and news and commentary on the Israel Defense Forces offensive, as well as strident denunciations of Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak and security services”. This report can be read in full here.
Gad is 22 years old, and Rizk is 27.
The NYTimes added that “Like Mr. Rizk, he was taken away because he participated in public demonstrations in support of Gaza — and in opposition to Egypt’s policies towards Gaza. And like Mr. Rizk, the government has not said where he is being held, or why, or when he might come home.
Mr. Gad was arrested after he participated in a peaceful demonstration in Cairo organized by the Wafd Party, a largely powerless, secular liberal political party. But he was also known as the man behind an Arabic language blog called soutgadeb.blogspot.com — ‘An Angry Voice’. He describes himself on the blog as an Egyptian citizen who loves his country”. The NYTimes reported that the blog had mocked Egypt’s President Mubarak — and in Egypt, the paper wrote, “Insulting the president is a crime punishable by a year in prison”.
(3) And Haaretz reported that a Swedish government employee — who happens to be head of an “assessment unit processing applications by asylum seekers” was fired, twice, for expressing support for Israel and the U.S. on his own blog. This story can be read in full here.