Wednesday, May 27, 2015

No One Jailed In Iran For Their Opinions? Many Take To Social Media To Disagree

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said that any criticism in a "healthy society" should follow two rules: It should be fair and respect "national interests."

While Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif believes Iran does not jail people for their opinions, many disagree with his assessment.

Zarif was asked during a late April appearance on a U.S. news program about the detention of Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian, who has been in jail in Tehran for the past nine months on security charges, including espionage.

"We do not jail people for their opinions," Zarif told host Charlie Rose, before adding that the government has a plan to improve the situation of human rights but that "people who commit crimes, who violate the laws of a country, cannot hide behind being a journalist or being a political activist."

Former political prisoners and others were quick to take to social media to dismiss Zarif's claim as a "lie," pointing out that dozens of political prisoners -- including journalists, bloggers, and political activists -- are languishing in Iranian prisons.

Among them is London-based Iranian-Canadian journalist Maziar Bahari, who was jailed in Iran and put on trial amid the state's brutal crackdown on the protests that followed the disputed 2009 reelection of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad.

Journalist Bahman Ahmadi Amouei, also jailed in the 2009 crackdown, challenged Zarif's claim in a letter widely shared on Facebook.

Speaking as "a journalist who was jailed because of his opinions and articles written in the country's newspapers," Amouei left no room for doubt that he suffered in prison as a result. 

"I was interrogated and subjected to mental and physical torture," he wrote, adding that, "I testify that Rohani's government and his foreign minister are lying about this issue."

Some likened the Iranian foreign minister to Pinocchio by circulating a photoshopped image of him with a long wooden nose.

Many posted comments on Zarif's Facebook page while expressing their frustration over the claim made by a foreign minister who enjoys popular support over his handling of sensitive nuclear negotiations with world powers.

"We didn't expect to hear a lie from you," wrote one man before asking: "What is the crime of our most noble jailed journalists and political activists?"

Another user scolded Zarif. "By saying that, 'We don't jail people for their opinions,' you turn the hope of many Iranians who've become slightly hopeful over the presence of truthful and reasonable politicians in the country into despair," the user wrote.

Some sent a reminder to Zarif of the existence of activists and intellectuals sent to jail for their views or activism by posting their names on his Facebook page.

Others made comparisons between Zarif and former President Ahmadinejad, who was known for making controversial and untrue claims.

Well-known Internet activist Vahid Online posted a video on Twitter of Ahmadinejad claiming during a 2007 visit to New York that there were no homosexuals in Iran.

Zarif's admirers appeared undisturbed by his claim on PBS's Charlie Rose show, advising people to tone down their criticism. Some said the criticism was unwelcome because it could hurt the Iranian government's negotiations over its nuclear capabilities.

Exiled cartoonist Mana Neyestani weighed in with a cartoon that reflected on the different reactions to "lies" by Ahmadinejad to those of Zarif.

"Several years ago," reads the caption above Ahmadinejad, pictured with a wooden nose, while three individuals are seen holding signs that say: "The Liar Has Been Exposed."

Zarif is pictured underneath, also with a wooden nose, while three individuals hold signs that say: "The Government Is Negotiating. Do Not Disturb."

In a May 1 post on Facebook, Zarif acknowledged the criticism while claiming that he has always supported "freedom and criticism."

Iran's top diplomat then added that, in his view, any criticism in a "healthy society" should follow two rules: It should be fair and respect "national interests."

Many of Iran's political prisoners, including journalists and bloggers, are sent to jail on charges of harming Iran's national security.

-- Golnaz Esfandiari 

Zarif Says Iran Doesn’t Jail People Over Their Opinions

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif appears in a think-tank discussion at New York University on April 29.

“We do not jail people for their opinions," said Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in an interview with U.S. journalist and television personality Charlie Rose aired on April 27.

Zarif made the comments in response to a question about the fate of Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian, who’s been imprisoned in Iran on espionage charges.

Despite the claim by Zarif, rights groups say there are several hundred political prisoners in Iran, some of which have ended up in prison for expressing their opinions or because of their peaceful political activities.

They include student activists Bahareh Hedayat and Majid Tavakoli and opposition figures Mir Hossein Musavi, Zahra Rahnavard, and Mehdi Karrubi, who have been under house arrest for some four years without being formally charged.

Dozens of Baha'is, Sufis, and Christian converts have also been jailed in recent years due to their religious beliefs.

Iranian officials often deny the existence of political prisoners and prisoners of conscience while referring to them as "security prisoners." Iranian courts send activists, intellectuals, and others to jail on security charges.

In his interview with Rose, Zarif said the Iranian government had a plan to improve human rights but he added, "people who commit crimes, who violate the laws of a country, cannot hide behind being a journalist or being a political activist."

"People have to observe the law," he said. 

Zarif was reminded of Iranian political prisoners during his remarks at an April 29 event in New York organized by the New America Foundation when an Iranian student attending the event held a Persian-language sign calling for the release of opposition leader Musavi.

Student Ali Abdi holds a “End Sanctions Against Iran” sign at an event in New York where Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif was speaking.Student Ali Abdi holds a “End Sanctions Against Iran” sign at an event in New York where Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif was speaking.
Student Ali Abdi holds a “End Sanctions Against Iran” sign at an event in New York where Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif was speaking.
Student Ali Abdi holds a “End Sanctions Against Iran” sign at an event in New York where Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif was speaking.

The sign held by student Ali Abdi had another message in English for the United States and other countries that have imposed sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program:  "End sanctions against Iran."

At the end of the session, Abdi called on Zarif as the representative of the Iranian government to push for the release of political prisoners and more freedom inside the country. 

"As an Iranian student who lives in the U.S. I hope the nuclear issue will be resolved, an agreement will be reached, and people won't have to carry the burden of the sanctions," Abdi said in Persian.

Abdi noted that when Zarif returned to Iran last month from Lausanne, Switzerland, where Iran and world powers reached a framework nuclear agreement, some people who had come to the airport to welcome Iran’s top diplomat chanted in support of Musavi.

Abdi added: "We expect you as the representative of the government to pursue the [democratic] demands of the Iranian people inside the country as you are doing here bravely."

Abdi told RFE/RL that Zarif "politely" waited till he expressed himself and thanked him before leaving the room.

--Golnaz Esfandiari 

Iranian Foreign Minister, U.S. Senator In Twitter Spat

U.S. Senator Tom Cotton (left) and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and U.S. Senator Tom Cotton have had a forthright exchange of views on Twitter in a new war of words between the two men over nuclear negotiations and a potential nuclear deal.   

The exchange of tweets started with Cotton taking a personal swipe at Zarif, accusing him of being a coward. The Iranian foreign minister's response was diplomatic in tone and he also congratulated the American politican on the recent birth of his son.

The renewed fight broke on April 29, a few hours after Zarif mentioned Cotton in remarks in New York and suggested that the U.S. Congress is likely to have little sway in a nuclear deal and that the United Nations would ease sanctions "whether Senator Cotton likes it or not."

The Republican Senator who's been very vocal in his opposition to a nuclear agreement with Iran, fired back on Twitter.

Cotton accused Zarif of cowardice during the Iran/Iraq war that left tens of thousands dead, including Iranian child soldiers.


"Serious diplomacy, not macho personal smear, is what we need," responded Zarif on Twitter.

The row between Zarif and Cotton was originally sparked in March when Cotton and 46 of his colleagues sent a letter to Iranian leaders schooling them on the U.S. constitutional system while warning that Congress would weigh in on any potential deal and lifting of sanctions.

Speaking on April 29 at the New American foundation in New York, Zarif said that Tehran does not want "to get bogged down into the domestic procedures in the United States."

"I've studied and lived in the U.S.," Zarif said. "I know enough about the U.S. Constitution and U.S. procedures, but as a foreign government, I only deal with U.S. government. I do not deal with U.S. Congress."

When Duty Calls, Do Iranian Police Enforce Islam?

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (left) has taken issue with President Hassan Rohani's comments on the duties of police.

Is the role of Iranian police to serve and protect the people, or the revolution?

That's up for interpretation in the Islamic republic, where the country's president and supreme leader have recently voiced different opinions on the police's role in enforcing Islamic values.

President Hassan Rohani sparked the debate when he addressed police commanders in Tehran on April 25.

"Police do not have a duty to enforce Islam," he was quoted as saying by Iranian media. "Police have a single task, which is to enforce the law."

That judgement, however, was not shared by the country's highest authority, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

In a speech posted on his website just a day after Rohani's comments, the supreme leader advised police that "your job is to serve society, the Islamic republic, and Islam's victory."

Limits Of The Law

The diverging viewpoints are the latest example of Rohani and Khamenei playing good cop/bad cop on issues that pit hard-line conservatives and more moderate elements of the Iranian establishment.

In this case, Rohani allows more room for the people to police themselves when it comes to practicing their faith.

"Police can take action when, first, there is legislation," he said. "Secondly, when the law has been communicated clearly and transparently."

Otherwise, he asked, where does it end?

Law enforcement -- such as morality police who ensure that women “properly” cover their hair and bodies -- are already involved in the enforcement of Islamic values. But Rohani argues that the long arm of the law has limits.

"For example," he said, "can the police enter a bank at noon and tell the bank manager: 'It's time for prayers?'"

Hard-Line Response

It didn't take long for Iranian hard-liners to weigh in on the debate -- predictably coming in on the side of the supreme leader.

Khamenei's comments were front-page news for Kayhan, which suggested that Rohani's view was in violation of Islamic teachings.​

The ultra-hard-line daily argued that committing a “haram” act in private or public is considered a crime and, therefore, preventing that crime falls under the duties of law enforcement.

"Expressing these comments is wrong because our laws are nothing but Islam," said Ayatollah Makarem Shirazi. The prominent cleric said it was the duty of all citizens, police forces or otherwise, to implement Islamic laws.

He suggested that comments to the contrary could give a "green light" to the morally corrupt because it would signal to them that they can do whatever they want and the police will not interfere.

Another cleric, Ayatollah Safi Golpayegani, said he was "very worried" by Rohani's comments.

"Many young people were martyred, maimed, and taken captive, and their aim was to revive Islamic values and implement holy Islamic laws,” Golpayegani said of the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Ayatollah Nouri Hamedani, meanwhile, blasted Rohani's remarks and noted that the constitution of the Islamic republic was based on Islamic criteria.

The dispute over the duties of the police comes less than a year after a similar dispute over the path to heaven and the state’s role in leading to it.

Last year, Rohani came under fire from hard-liners for suggesting that it wasn't the duty of the state to guide people to heaven by interfering in their lives.

-- Golnaz Esfandiari

Increasing Number Of Afghans, Pakistanis Killed In Syria Buried In Iran

Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani (left) with Afghan Alireza Tavasoli, commander of the Fatemiyoun Brigade, who was killed fighting in Syria.

An increasing number of Afghans and Pakistanis killed in the fighting in Syria have been buried in Iran in recent months.

There is little information about the circumstances of their presence in Syria and their subsequent deaths in the fighting.

They appear to be among recruits by the Islamic republic to help the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad fight the rebels. Last year, The Wall Street Journal reported that Iran had been recruiting thousands of Afghans to fight in Syria, offering them financial rewards and residency. 

Iranian media often cover large funerals held for them in Iranian cities, usually attended by local and religious officials. The reports refer to them as the "defenders of the Sayeda Zeynab shrine," a group believed to have been established by Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). The group also includes Iranian fighters. 

Fatemiyoun Brigade

On March 1, Iranian hard-line websites reported that an Afghan named Alireza Tavasoli, who was described as "one of the bravest commanders" in the fighting in Syria, had been killed in Daraa.

Tavasoli was the commander of the Fatemiyoun Brigade that, according to Iranian media reports, is made up of Afghan volunteers who fight in Syria to protect holy Shi'ite shrines. Tavasoli, known as "Abu Hamed," was reportedly a resident of the Iranian city of Mashhad and a graduate of a university in Qom.

The hard-line said Tavasoli was trusted by the commander of Iran's elite Quds Force, Qassem Soleimani. The website posted a photo of Soleimani and Tavasoli in military uniform.

The report said Tavasoli was buried along with six other Afghan fighters in Mashhad. 

Zeynabiyoun Brigade

Iranian hard-line media has reported that Pakistanis killed in the fighting in Syria and buried in Iran were members of the Zeynabiyoun Brigade, which has reportedly been established by Pakistanis fighting in Syria.

On April 9, seven Pakistanis killed in Syria were buried in Qom. 

The hard-line website identified them as Taher Hossein, Jamil Hossein, Javid Hossein, Bagher Hossein, Seyed Razi Shah, Ghader Ali, and Ghabel Hossein, and said they were from Pakistan's Parachinar region.

Two weeks later, on April 23, Iranian media reported that five more Pakistanis killed in combat in Syria had also been buried in Qom. The reports said a large number of citizens, including Pakistanis residing in Qom, had attended the procession. 

The names of the two brigades that include Afghans and Pakistanis have relatively recently popped up in Iranian hard-line news sites.

Ali Alfoneh, senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, says establishment of the Fatemiyoun and Zeynabiyoun brigades suggests that the number of Afghans and Pakistanis who have joined the fighting in Syria has increased.

Alfoneh believes that the Afghans and Pakistanis are being buried in Iranian cities and the presence of Iranian officials and their families at their funerals is evidence that they have been recruited from among the country's refugees and immigrants.

Alfoneh has documented in the past two years the case of about hundred Afghans killed in Syria and buried in Iran. "There has been a rising trend, which seems to be because of several military setbacks for the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria and advances of the opposition in the field," Alfoneh told RFE/RL in a telephone interview.

Reports suggest Iran provides Syria, its main regional ally, with financial support and military advisers. Iran denies reports that its forces are fighting in Syria to keep Assad in power.

Iranian officials have also dismissed reports suggesting Tehran is recruiting Afghans living in Iran to fight in Syria.

-- Golnaz Esfandiari

Prospect Of Iranian Nuclear Deal Stirs Hope For Detained Americans

An undated picture of dual U.S.-Iranian citizen Saeed Abedini with his wife Naghmeh and their two children. He has been imprisoned in Iran since 2012.

Golnaz Esfandiari

When Iran and the United States found some common ground at the negotiating table earlier this month, it gave Naghmeh Abedini a welcome glimmer of hope. 

Her husband, Christian pastor Saeed Abedini, a dual U.S.-Iranian citizen, has been imprisoned in Iran since 2012 on charges of threatening the country's national security through private religious gatherings.

Could the prospect of a final nuclear deal between Tehran and world powers help secure his release?

So far, she told RFE/RL, not only has there been no improvement in his situation, it has gotten worse.

"We just know that, pretty much a few days after the deal was reached, he was threatened and harassed by guards more," she said.

The precise reasons for this are not clear. The answer could be a relatively simple case of Abedini's guards carrying out a personal vendetta. Or it could be much more complex, and serve as a defiant hard-line statement against improved relations with the United States.

In recent months, longstanding tensions between the two countries have significantly eased. But while hard-liners have been supportive of the nuclear negotiations, they have made it clear they don't want to see moves toward normalized relations.

While the release of Saeed Abedini and other Americans is not up for discussion in the ongoing nuclear talks, for Naghmeh Abedini, their outcome holds the key to her husband's fate.

"If a deal is reached, there's better relations and we're hoping that would mean Iran would let my husband go free," she told RFE/RL in a telephone interview. "But if somehow, for some reason, no deal is reached, that is bad news."

"This is the best chance for Iran to show good-faith effort by releasing Saeed and other Americans," Naghmeh Abedini added.

Iranian-American Amir Hekmati, a former U.S. marine, has been held in Iran on espionage charges since 2011.
Iranian-American Amir Hekmati, a former U.S. marine, has been held in Iran on espionage charges since 2011.

Pawn In Nuclear Negotiations?

The family of former U.S. Marine is also hoping that a nuclear deal could help lead to his release, a spokeswoman told RFE/RL. Hekmati, a dual U.S.-Iranian national, has been in jail in Iran since August 2011 on espionage charges.

Amy Mueller, the coordinator of the "Free Amir" campaign, said Hekmati has been told by Iranian authorities that his case is dependent on the outcome of the nuclear negotiations.

"There's been indications even made to Amir by some Iranian officials that the deal is really attached to it," Mueller said. "He's basically a bargaining chip attached to that deal."

It is also believed that the case of Washington Post bureau chief Jason Rezaian is tied to the outcome of the nuclear talks and infighting in Iran over improved relations with the United States.

Rezaian, who was detained in Iran nine months ago, was this week charged with espionage and three other security crimes, including "collaborating with hostile governments." 

Before being formally charged, hard-line media -- including the Fars news agency, which is affiliated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) -- had accused Rezaian of spying.

The charges have been dismissed by Rezaian's family and The Washington Post as baseless.

Rezaian's lawyer, Leila Ahsan, said in a statement that the judiciary has not provided evidence to back the charges, which she said are related to his journalistic work.

Ahsan suggested that a nuclear deal could help Rezaian's case.

"Even though legal affairs are outside the bounds of politics, I hope the nuclear talks and its developments will have a positive effect on a speedy release of my client," she wrote.

Separate From Nuclear Talks

A State Department official told RFE/RL in an e-mail, on condition of anonymity, that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Undersecretary Wendy Sherman have raised the cases of the detained and missing Americans repeatedly with Iranian officials and will continue to do so until they are all home. 

However, the official said the issue will remain "on the sidelines" of the nuclear negotiations.

"We have also been very clear that our discussions with Iran about our concerns over these U.S. citizens are a separate issue from the nuclear talks," the official wrote. Detained U.S. citizens "should be returned to their families independently of political negotiations with Iran; their freedom should not be tied to the outcome of these negotiations.‎"

Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says that, in the event of a deal, the likelihood of the release of detained Americans goes up.

"But it's difficult to predict and each of their circumstances are different."

Sadjadpour believes the case of Robert Levinson, a former FBI agent and contractor with the CIA who vanished during a 2007 trip to Iran's Kish Island, is the most complicated given his links to U.S intelligence.

Tehran has said it is not aware of Levinson's whereabouts. 

For Levinson's wife, Christine Levinson, there is still hope.

"I definitely believe that if the United States and Iran work together it's very possible that they can resolve the issue of where Bob is and how we can get him home," she told RFE/RL.

Iran Teaching Head Sent To Jail

Teachers have recently protested across Iran.

The secretary-general of Iran’s Teachers' Organization was arrested on April 20 and transferred to Tehran’s Evin prison to serve a five-year sentence, Iran’s semi-official ILNA news agency reported.

Alireza Hashemi was sentenced to prison in 2010 for “pursuing union demands” and “meeting with relatives of jailed teachers,” his deputy, Tahereh Naghiyi, told ILNA.

Naghiyi said Hashemi had been convicted of charges that included “acting against national security.”

The organization said the move was an attempt to radicalize the teachers' movement, which it said has been following a rational path. 

The organization also called on the government of Iranian President Hassan Rohani to listen to the voices of the teachers calling for greater rights and to prevent the creation of a “security [state] atmosphere” in the country.

Hashemi’s arrest comes amid what activists describe as increased state pressure on teachers calling for higher wages.

The pressure is reportedly connected to last week’s protests by thousands of teachers in more than two dozen cities, including the capital Tehran.

The teachers who took part in the silent rallies on April 18 called for increased wages and also for the release of their jailed colleagues.

In recent months, Iranian teachers have held several protests against low wages and inadequate living conditions.

A number of them have been arrested and jailed for calling for more rights. They include Rasoul Bodaghi and Alireza Ghanbadi, who remain in jail.

-- Roozbeh Bolhari

About This Blog

Persian Letters is a blog that offers a window into Iranian politics and society. Written primarily by Golnaz Esfandiari, Persian Letters brings you under-reported stories, insight and analysis, as well as guest Iranian bloggers -- from clerics, anarchists, feminists, Basij members, to bus drivers.

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