Sunday, August 28, 2016

Khomeini Grandson Defends Decades-Old Mass Political Executions

Ali Khomeini, an Iranian cleric who is the grandson of the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

Golnaz Esfandiari

Ali Khomeini, a grandson of revolutionary leader and Islamic Republic of Iran founder Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, has defended thousands of summary executions of political prisoners in 1988 following a fatwa by his grandfather.

Some sources claim that more than 5,000 members of the Mujahedin-e Khalq Organization (MKO) and further leftist groups, students, and others were executed in the span of a few months. The prisoners were said to have been executed after brief interrogations by three-member committees -- dubbed "death commissions" -- about their political and religious beliefs. 

Speaking at a June 1 event in Qom marking the anniversary of Ayatollah Khomeini's death, Ali Khomeini, a cleric, suggested that the executions of political opponents, particularly MKO members, was a wise move.

"Today, some people feel sorry for the hypocrites" -- a term used by Iranian authorities to refer to MKO members -- "and say, 'Why did you execute them?' These were people who stood against the establishment and committed crimes that [militant Islamist group Islamic State] would not commit," the younger Khomeini was quoted as saying by Iranian media.

"They assassinated the president, the prime minister, and many other senior figures," Khomeini, who teaches at the Qom seminary, said in reference to a series of bombings by the MKO in the 1980s.

Known in Iran as "The Little Ali," Khomeini added that if his grandfather had shown flexibility toward them, "the country would not experience any peace even after 30 years."

He also claimed that Khomeini’s "management" of the crisis -- he was the country's first supreme leader under Iran's postrevolutionary theocracy -- that Iran faced following the 1979 revolution brought peace to the country.

Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (1900-1989)Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (1900-1989)
Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (1900-1989)
Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (1900-1989)

"Maybe several years ago, it wasn’t as easy as today to speak about the management of The Imam," he said of the elder Khomeini in an allusion to the "Arab spring" uprisings for social justice that swept some states in the Middle East and northern Africa in 2010-11 but many critics say were reversed in what some dub an "Arab winter." "It’s easier to speak about it today."

"Who today has a clear idea of the fate of those revolutions? Beside it, we have to look at why Iran’s Islamic revolution was successful." He said, according to the text of his speech published by the hard-line, semiofficial Fars news agency.

The 1988 executions are rarely discussed publicly in Iran, where families of the victims have faced state pressure and harassment for attempting to hold commemorations for their lost loved ones.

Amnesty International has called on Iran "to uphold the right to truth, justice and reparation of the families of those killed" in the 1988 executions, which the rights group said will remain known to Iranians as The Prison Massacre. 

'Islamic' Chair Cover Gets Iranian Activist In Trouble

Shai Sadr sits on the "Islamic" couch with a wine glass (click for full image).

Last updated (GMT/UTC): 03.06.2016 08:09

Golnaz Esfandiari

A prominent Iranian human rights lawyer and women's rights activist has created a controversy by posting a picture on social media that shows her sitting on a chair with Islamic motifs while holding a glass of wine.

The chair in the photo of Shadi Sadr is covered with a material used in Iran for events marking the Ashura, the martyrdom of Imam Hossein, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad. It is a work by Iranian artist Parastou Forouhar, whose parents were among intellectuals and political activists killed in the late 1990s by Intelligence Ministry agents.

Hard-line conservative Iranian media, including state-controlled television and the Fars news agency, which is affiliated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), accused Sadr of insulting Islamic sanctities and disrespecting Islamic values.

Sadr, one of many activists and intellectuals who had to flee Iran to escape imprisonment in a crackdown after the 2009 presidential elections, told RFE/RL that the photo was not insulting and that she posted the photo to highlight the plight of nonbelievers in Iran.

"Shadi Sadr, the fugitive feminist and a so-called journalist who supports women's rights, has entered her pro-Western orientation into a new phase: insulting values and the holiest of the holy symbols of the Iranian nation; the symbol of the mourning for [Imam Hossein]," a state television report said.

Fars called Sadr's picture "an excuse to insult religious sanctity," while accusing her of questioning Islamic principles for years.

The news agency posted a statement by "a group of professors and law experts" calling for Sadr's extradition, trial, and punishment over what it said was her "antireligious" move.

The statement said that according to Islamic penal law, those convicted of insulting sanctity and holy figures can be either sentenced to death or to one to five years in prison.

Sadr told RFE/RL that she posted the photo on social media to highlight what she saw an as "interesting contrast."

"I was sitting [with friends] and discussing Ashura practices and our memories and experiences from childhood when I realized the contrast between the [chair] I was sitting on, the material on it, and myself with that glass in hand. I asked someone who was there to take my picture," she said in a telephone interview from London, where she is based.

"I thought there's an interesting contrast in the picture where a woman without the hijab and full of joy is sitting on that chair. It represents the many freedoms those who are not believers have been deprived of in Iran in the name of [religion]. That's all," she added.

Sadr dismissed allegations that her picture was an insult to Islamic sanctity.

"As someone born in a Shi'a family, I think I'm familiar enough with that culture to know that there is nothing insulting in that picture," she said.

She added, "The material [that covers the chair] is not considered sanctity, nor there is any insult in that picture."

She said she believed the outrage among critics stemmed from the contrast she highlighted in the picture, which is rarely seen in Iranian society.

Sadr's picture on Instagram generated over 34,000 comments, including many threats and warnings.

"You insulted the beliefs of a large number of people. It is really deplorable," read a comment posted under Sadr's post.

Another said that he hoped Sadr's would be "punished" soon.

"You keep talking about human rights and the need other people's beliefs. How come you disrespect other people's beliefs while making such claims," another user commented.

Some praised Sadr for the post.

"What a wonderful picture, full of positive energy," one woman wrote, adding that those who were angered by it should learn "to relax."

Sadr said she'd been threatened with death and rape over her picture. "Most of the threats I received [over the post] were threats of rape, [many] left obscene comments while defending holy figures," she said.

Some described in detail how they would rape Sadr if they would lay their hands on her.

Sadr's post was removed from Instagram on May 31. She said she hadn't received any notification from Instagram about the reason for the move.

Instagram has not yet responded to an RFE/RL inquiry about the removal of Sadr's post. The picture is still available on Sadr's Facebook page.

UPDATE: Sadr's photo is now available on Instagram after being temporarily removed. “We removed this image by mistake and we apologize for the inconvenience caused. We worked to rectify this as soon as we were notified and have already taken steps to prevent this from happening in the future,” an Instagram spokesperson told RFE/RL in an e-mail. 

Leading Iranian Human Rights Defender Sentenced To 16 Years In Prison

Iranian human rights activist, Narges Mohammadi with her children Ali (center) and Kiana

Last updated (GMT/UTC): 19.05.2016 19:30

Golnaz Esfandiari

A leading Iranian human rights activist has been sentenced to a total of 16 years in prison after being convicted of charges that include membership in a campaign for the abolition of the death penalty.

The heavy sentence against Narges Mohammadi, the deputy head of the Defenders of Human Rights Center (DHRC) co-founded by Iranian Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi, was issued on top of a six-year-prison sentence she is already serving.

“It’s revenge [against] a human rights defender to keep her in prison and intimidate other rights activists,” Mohammadi’s husband, Taghi Rahmani, told RFE/RL’s Radio Farda.

Rahmani, who is based in Paris with their two children, said that 10 years of the 16-year prison sentence was issued for “establishing” the outlawed campaign called Step By Step To Stop The Death Penalty in Iran.

But he said Mohammadi was merely a member of the campaign, not a founder.

“She’s not one of the founding members of the campaign,” Rahmani said in a May 19 telephone interview.

“Why is working to decrease the high number of executions in Iran a crime?” Rahmani asked.

He said Mohammadi was sentenced to five years in prison for “meeting and conspiring against the Islamic republic,” and one year for “acting against Iran’s national security.”

Rahmani said the charges stem from Mohammadi’s interviews with Persian-language media based outside of Iran and also for a 2014 meeting in Tehran with former EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.

Under Iranian laws, a person sentenced to multiple prison sentences will serve only the most severe, which means that in practice Mohammadi has been sentenced to 10 years' imprisonment.

The sentence can be appealed.

The French media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) condemned the sentence as the outcome of “a flawed trial” held on April 20 under the influence of Iran’s intelligence ministry and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).

"Such a heavy sentence shows the iniquitous character of Iranian justice," the group’s secretary-general, Christophe Deloire, said in a May 19 statement.

He added: "President [Hassan] Rohani cannot remain silent in the face of such a judicial outrage even if everyone knows the judicial system takes its orders from the supreme leader."

WATCH: Jailed Iranian Activist Given Press Freedom Award In Absentia

Jailed Iranian Activist Given Press Freedom Award In Absentiai
May 03, 2016
On the eve of World Press Freedom Day, Reporters Without Borders honored imprisoned Iranian activist Narges Mohammadi at an event in Paris. Mohammadi's husband, Tagi Rahmani, who lives in exile in France, collected the "Heroes of Information" award on behalf of his wife at the May 2 ceremony.

Amnesty International said the “shocking” prison sentence against Mohammadi was “an all-out attack on human rights defenders in Iran.”

“The authorities have made clear their ruthless determination to silence human rights defenders and instill fear in would-be critics of their policies,” Philip Luther, director of the Middle East and North Africa program at Amnesty International, said in a statement.

Luther said it is shameful for the Iranian authorities to treat a prominent human rights defender as a criminal.

“It exposes their lip service to human rights as utterly meaningless and shows their deep disdain for the basic principles of justice,” he said.

Mohammadi, who has been honored by RSF as an information hero for her defense of human rights, was arrested in May 2015. 

She had been detained before and sentenced to prison over her human rights activities on several other occasions.

Radio Farda broadcaster Roya Karimimajd contributed to this report

Iranian Political Activist Tabarzadi Arrested

His son said Heshmatollah Tabarzadi had "very likely" been arrested on May 17 and reportedly was transferred to the special wing of a Tehran prison notorious for housing political prisoners for the country's intelligence service.

Golnaz Esfandiari

Iran has reportedly rearrested political activist and journalist Heshmatollah Tabarzadi, who was released last year after spending more than five years in jail for his outspoken criticism of the Iranian establishment.

His son said Tabarzadi had "very likely" been arrested on May 17 and reportedly was transferred to the special wing of a Tehran prison notorious for housing political prisoners for the country's intelligence service.

The reason for his arrest is unclear.

Iranian authorities routinely withhold information from relatives and the public about detainees and the charges against them, even once their trials have begun.

Abtin Tabarzadi wrote on social media that his father left the house in the morning and had not returned by evening.

He added later that he had received information that his father had been transferred to Section 209 of Evin prison, in the capital.

"[My father] had said repeatedly that in case of arrest, he will immediately go on an indefinite hunger strike," Tabarzadi wrote on Facebook.

Tabarzadi, the head of the banned Democratic Front of Iran, has been in and out of jail for the past two decades.

He was among the many activists and intellectuals arrested in the crackdown that followed the disputed reelection of Mahmud Ahmadinejad to the presidency in 2009. Tabarzadi was later sentenced to nine years in prison on charges that included "insulting Iran's leader" -- a reference to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei -- and "spreading propaganda against the [Iranian] establishment."

Since his release from prison in July, he had continued to criticize the Iranian authorities while accusing them of committing human rights abuses and staging unfair elections.

In an act of defiance, Tabarzadi registered as a candidate for Iran's February parliamentary elections. As expected, his candidacy was not approved by the powerful Guardians Council that vets all of Iran's election candidates.

On May 11, Tabarzadi posted on Facebook pictures of a meeting with a former Baha'i cellmate who had been released from prison. In the post, Tabarzadi criticized the perceived persecution of Baha'is in the Islamic republic, where their faith is not officially recognized.

Several journalists have been arrested in Iran in recent months.

Earlier this week, Iranian news sites reported that the manager of a popular blogging service, Mehdi Butorabi, had been detained.

Iranian authorities also announced that they had arrested eight people involved in a modeling network on Instagram where pictures of female models were posted without the obligatory Islamic head covering. 

Iran Targets Models, Bloggers In 'Values' Crackdowni
May 18, 2016
Iran has arrested eight people and is investigating scores of models, bloggers, designers, and others in a crackdown on social media related to the fashion industry. Some of the detainees are reportedly women who posed online without the mandatory head scarf. Authorities say they are targeting people who aim "to undermine the foundation of family values in Iran."

Iran's Leader Tells Families Of Afghans Killed In Syria: 'I'm Proud Of You'

In the March meeting, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei told the families of some of the Afghans killed in Syria that "martyrs who die on this path are privileged."

Golnaz Esfandiari

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has praised families of Afghan combatants killed in the fighting in Syria, according to a newly released video that could be aimed at boosting morale among troops deployed to support Tehran's regional ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

"I'm proud of you," Khamenei told the families in the March 27 meeting, video footage of which was first made public this week.

The release of the video on May 12 comes amid Tehran's mounting casualties in Syria, where 13 Iranian military personnel were killed last week in clashes with insurgents near Aleppo. It was Iran's heaviest single-day death toll in the conflict.

A few hundred Iranian and Afghan fighters are believed to have been killed in Syria during the five-year-old war, including several senior members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).

In June 2015, Iran's state IRNA news agency reported that about 400 Iranians and Afghans had been killed in Syria in the past four years.

About 150 more are believed to have been killed since then, according to reports by local media outlets that have been publishing their names and photos of their funerals.

Tehran says it has deployed only "military advisers" to boost Assad. In April, it said it has deployed a commando unit of its army to Syria to serve as "advisers."

Iranian media claim that Iranian and Afghan combatants who join the fight in Syria are "volunteers" who defend holy Shi'ite sites and are referred to as Defenders of the Shrine.

Afghans are being deployed as part of the Fatemiyoun Brigade, which reportedly consists of Afghan refugees, mainly Hazaras, living in Iran. Fatemiyoun's commander, Alireza Tavasoli, was killed in Syria in March 2015.

Human Rights Watch says thousands of them are undocumented Afghans recruited by the IRGC since November 2013, including some who, according to the rights group, have been coerced into joining the fight in Syria.

"Iran has not just offered Afghan refugees and migrants incentives to fight in Syria, but several said they were threatened with deportation back to Afghanistan unless they did," Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director at Human Rights Watch, said earlier this year.

In the March meeting, Khamenei told the families of some of the Afghans killed in Syria that "martyrs who die on this path are privileged."

"In fact your children have created a shield with their life to protect the holy shrines from these evil [forces]. Therefore their status is very important," he said.

Despite the rising death toll, Iranian authorities have suggested that Tehran will not accept any compromise on the fate of its ally, Assad, who has Russia's backing as well. The United States and its allies accuse Assad of indiscriminately bombing his own people and insist on his exit.

Iranian state media quoted Khamenei's adviser on international affairs, Ali Akbar Velayati, on May 8 as saying that Iran's red line is Assad remaining in power until the end of his term.

Take A Photo With Syrian Destruction At Tehran's Book Fair

"Take your photo here!"

Golnaz Esfandiari

A photo booth where visitors can have their photos taken in front of images of war-torn Syria is among the attractions at this year's Tehran Book Fair.

The booth attracted criticism after Iran's official government news agency, IRNA, published photos of visitors sitting atop a motorcycle while wearing military attire, with a backdrop of a bombed-out city looming behind them.

Some were seen smiling while others appeared slightly uncomfortable.

One woman is seen posing with a grenade in her hand. A man had his photo taken with a little boy sitting on his lap.

IRNA said the "photo booth of the Defenders of the Shrine" allowed visitors of the book fair, which began on May 3, to have a "digital and spiritual photo."

The pictures were widely shared on social media.

"Souvenir with the misery of a nation, souvenir with interference in another country," one man tweeted while using the hashtag #shame in Persian.

"People have taken their pictures while smiling next to a demolished city!" wrote a woman.

Another user wrote sarcastically that "if you want to take a picture with the mess we created in Syria, go to the Defenders of the Shrine photo booth."

The move appears to be part of the effort by Iranian authorities to glorify Iranians who join the fight in Syria. Iran claims it has only deployed "military advisers" in Syria to bolster its regional ally, President Bashar al-Assad, and to fight "terrorists."

Iranians and Shi'ite fighters are reportedly trained and deployed in Syria by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and the Basij force. They're known as the "Defenders of The Shrine" who, according to Iranian domestic media, travel to Syria voluntarily. They also include Afghans who, according to Human Rights Watch, are pressured by Iran to fight for Assad in exchange for financial rewards and legal residence.

The phrase "Defenders of the Shrine" refers to the Sayyidah Zaynab Mosque in Damascus, which is said to contain the grave of Zaynab, the daughter of Ali ibn Abi Taleb, the cousin of the Prophet Muhammad, whom Shi'ites consider the rightful successor to the Prophet.

Last year, IRNA reported that some 400 Iranians and Afghans based in Iran had been killed in Syria in the previous four years. Iran suffered its biggest death toll in Syria in a single day on May 6, when 13 military personnel were killed in clashes near Aleppo.

Iranian state media refers to those killed in Syria as "martyrs."

Their images, last wills, and interviews with friends and families are published in media affiliated with the IRGC.

The families of some of them have met with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, according to pictures posted on

In a meeting that took place more than a year ago, Khamenei was quoted as saying that "if the Defenders of the Shrine weren't [against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq], Iran would have to fight them [IS] in Kermanshah and Hamedan."

From Blog To Telegram, Iranian Citizen Journalist Keeps Challenging Regime

Amir started his publishing career lampooning Iranian life.

Golnaz Esfandiari

By day, Amir pores over data on nuclear safety at a European research institute in pursuit of his doctorate in neutron imaging. 

But by night, he becomes a witty, tech-savvy citizen journalist who floods the Persian-language cyberspace with news and information about his native Iran with "a twist of humor." It keeps him up to speed with the country he loves but dares not return to, Amir says, for fear of arrest over his web activism.

"I try to cover issues that cannot be reported by domestic media" because of censorship efforts by Tehran's clerically dominated postrevolutionary leadership, says the 30-something grad student, who left Iran around seven years ago to study abroad and posts under the pseudonym Mamlekate. 

In one recent post to Telegram, the de rigueur messaging app these days for privacy-minded Iranians, Amir shared a poignant window on modern Iran. Contributed by an unnamed contact in Iran, the snapshot shows a group of people trying to push a marked police van across a sandy beach in northern Iran.

"The morality police van came to the beach and arrested a number of people. After getting stuck in the sand, everyone had to come out to push it out. It's the story of Iran," Amir captioned the photo, which has been shared and viewed thousands of times.

Frustrated by a culture that has been subject to "red lines" and other strict checks on public expression since Islamic revolutionaries swept to power in 1979-80, Amir has made it his moonlight mission to seize on memes, images, and other postings on politically sensitive issues that are making the rounds on social media and elsewhere on the Internet.

He does it by exploiting areas that continue to frustrate Iranian officials because they are seemingly beyond their technological reach, despite Tehran's best efforts at "smart filtering" and other methods to block entire swaths of the World Wide Web.

Amir has moved on from a successful "entertainment" blog called So Just What Kind Of Country Is This That We Live In?, which routinely lampooned aspects of official Iranian life, to launch a public channel on the Telegram mobile messaging app that has attracted some 130,000 followers.

20 Million Users

Telegram is among the few social-networking platforms that has not been blocked by Iranian authorities, despite criticism by some hard-liners who have denounced it as a tool used by Iran's enemies.

As a result, it is thought to have become Iran's most popular social-media application, used by some 20 million Iranians, according to an estimate published in a semiofficial Iranian news agency.

Amir's recent posts include tweets and pictures poking fun at the newly launched undercover morality police and calls for the release of a jailed physician who was recently hospitalized for surgery.

Telegram has not been blocked yet by the Iranian authorities.
Telegram has not been blocked yet by the Iranian authorities.

Another mocks the ultra-hard-line daily Kayhan newspaper with a picture of editor Hossein Shariatmadari lying in a hospital bed and speaking by phone with Binyamin Netanyahu, prime minister of archrival Israel, and assuring him that he's doing well.

"Come over for dinner," Shariatmadari tells Netanyahu. 

Iranian activists have ridiculed the two men as de facto allies over their opposition to last year's atomic accord with world powers, under which Iran significantly limited its nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief.

"We call [Shariatmadari] 'Israel's interest section in Iran,'" says Amir.

Amir earned his Internet nickname (Mamlekate) while administrating and contributing to the popular "So Just What Kind Of Country..." collective blog -- Mamlekate Darim, in Persian. That blog won top prize in 2010 in the Farsi category of the Best Of Online Activism awards created by Germany's Deutsche Welle.

The concept was simple: Each post included a short, often funny observation about the paradoxes of life in the Islamic republic, followed by the question: So just what kind of country is this that we're living in?

One post observed, for instance: "I study music at the university. For six terms I have to take a course on Islamic science that says music is haram. So just what kind of country is this that we're living in?"

The blog is no longer active.

On the Telegram channel he launched around six months ago, Amir has reposted pictures from Iran, information, and opinions, while also poking fun at state policies, including the strict Islamic dress, or hijab, that became compulsory following the 1979 revolution and state propaganda surrounding it. Users can view, share, and download the heavily encrypted Telegram content on their cellphones. Official surveys suggest that about half of Iran's 80 million people have smartphones. 

"We act as an extra pair of eyes, we try to expose false claims and discriminatory policies and nonsensical statements as best as we can," Amir says.

When an Iranian lawmaker said parliament was "not a place for women" or "donkeys," Amir published the lawmaker's telephone number and asked followers to text the legislator to protest against his comments. He said he received dozens of screenshots of texts his followers had sent to the lawmaker, who eventually apologized for his controversial statement.

Journalist Omid Memarian says Amir's Telegram feed is "a good example of a strong grassroots campaign."

"He creates a public conversation about key subjects while also challenging the state narrative on issues such as elections, forced hijab, or for example Iran's role in Syria," Memarian says.

Amir recently asked followers to express their demands from Iranian President Hassan Rohani. He received dozens of short recorded messages that he shared on his channel, some of which were used by the New York-based International Campaign for Human Rights In Iran, which included them in a video that has been viewed more than 300,000 times. In one, a man urges Iranian authorities, "Please end the jamming of satellite channels."

Another asked Rohani -- who has Twitter feeds in both Persian (260,000 followers) and English (477,000 followers) -- whether "it isn't unjust that you can use Twitter but the people who voted for you can't." Twitter is filtered in Iran, although many Iranians access it through antifiltering tools.

When a friend and fellow administrator at "So Just What Kind Of Country..." was arrested years ago, Amir says the blogging colleague later told him he was a main topic of questioning by the interrogators.

Amir says he fears arrest if he returned to Iran, and he stayed away when his father passed away earlier this year. 

"I feel I've become the media and also the voice of some [people inside Iran]. They wouldn't let me go," he says. 

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.

Guerrilla Translators

Seen anything in the Iranian blogosphere that you think Persian Letters should cover? If so, contact Golnaz Esfandiari at