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Political satirist Kiumars Marzban is among the recent victims of an intensified state crackdown in Iran. (file photo)

Political satirist Kiumars Marzban could spend more than a decade in an Iranian prison just for doing his job.

Marzban is among the recent victims of an intensified state crackdown in Iran that has resulted in unusually harsh prison sentences for journalists, human rights lawyers, women protesting the compulsory hijab rule, labor rights activists, and others.

Marzban, who returned to Iran from his home in Malaysia in 2017 to care for his ailing mother, has been sentenced to a total of 23 years and three months in prison after being convicted of several charges, including "cooperating with an enemy state" -- meaning the United States -- and insulting Iranian authorities.

According to Iranian law, those convicted of multiple crimes will serve the longest of the terms they received of the concurrent sentences. In the case of Marzban, who freelanced for RFE/RL's Radio Farda and other media outlets, he will have to serve 11 years in prison if his sentence is upheld.

Journalist and labor activist Sepideh Gholian (left) and labor rights activist Esmail Bakhshi. (file photo)
Journalist and labor activist Sepideh Gholian (left) and labor rights activist Esmail Bakhshi. (file photo)

Just within the past month, Human Rights Watch (HRW) has listed the cases of 13 activists who were sentenced to a total of more than 100 years in prison for their peaceful activities. They include journalist and labor activist Sepideh Gholian, who is facing a 19-year prison sentence, and prominent labor rights activist Esmail Bakhshi, who received a 14-year sentence.

Analysts believe the crackdown and the increased intolerance towards any kind of dissent is Iran's response to perceived internal and external threats, including potential unrest over a deteriorating economy and a campaign of "maximum pressure" by the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump.

'National Security Crisis'

Washington's decision last year to leave the historic 2015 nuclear deal and reimpose crippling sanctions that have targeted Iran's banking sector and its oil exports -- its major source of income -- have made financial transactions increasingly difficult for the Islamic republic and damaged the economy.

"The timing of this increased repression is directly proportional to the increased fear that the regime has today during a moment of a national security crisis," Nader Hashemi, a professor of Middle Eastern politics at the University of Denver, told RFE/RL.

"It is clear to me that Iranian hard-liners are seizing this opportunity to expand their repression," he added. "They are hoping that fear of external aggression will deflect attention away from their internal repression."

Iran faced large-scale protests over the economy, mismanagement, and corruption in late 2017 and early 2018 in more than 80 cities and towns. Many of the protesters chanted slogans against the Iranian establishment and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Amnesty International reported that in 2018 more than 7,000 protesters, students, journalists, environmental activists, workers, and human rights defenders -- including lawyers, women's rights activists, minority rights activists, and trade unionists -- were arrested. Hundreds were sentenced to prison terms or flogging and at least 26 protesters were killed, the rights group reported.

The repression level has remained high in 2019, even though the number of protests has dropped significantly -- by 38 percent according to Iranian Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli -- with analysts suggesting that the poor economy is likely to weaken citizens' ability to hold public protests.

'Deep Frustration'

Saeid Golkar, assistant professor at the Political Science Department at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and a senior fellow on Iran policy at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, says the establishment remains worried that there could be mass unrest due to "deep frustration" among Iranians and the "ineffectiveness of the regime."

The establishment's concerns have been heightened by some in the U.S. administration -- including former national-security adviser John Bolton -- who have promoted policies aimed at regime change and military action in Iran.

Some of them also have close ties to the exiled and unpopular opposition group Mujahedin Khalq Organization, which aims to overthrow the Iranian regime.

"Any further protests will be supported by Trump," Golkar said. "So, it seems the best strategy for [Iran] is tightening its grip on society. Sending signals that we won't hesitate to suppress any unrest, especially if pressured."

"They don't want to show any weakness," he added.

Hard-line cleric Ebrahim Raisi (file photo)
Hard-line cleric Ebrahim Raisi (file photo)

The appointment in March of a new head of the Judiciary, hard-line cleric Ebrahim Raisi, who is accused of serious human rights violations from his role in mass executions at prisons in the 1980s, appears to be another factor behind the intensified crackdown.

"In addition to his [controversial] history, he has an eye on the post of the supreme leader. He wants to prove to Khamenei that he's not afraid of suppressing the dissenters to guard the regime," Golkar said. "[Raisi is] a revolutionary...who doesn't comprise his principles just because of outside critics."

'Sweet Taste Of Justice'

In addition to those imprisoned, many others are feeling the heavy hand of the current clampdown.

In a statement posted online on September 11, more than 260 activists in Iran warned that in recent days an increasing number of women's rights activists, workers, teachers, lawyers, writers, artists, and others have been pressured by authorities who have summoned them, searched their homes, and even detained them.

"The new head of the Judiciary came to power with the slogan: 'the sweet taste of justice,' but so far activists have gained nothing but heavy sentences and astronomically high bail amounts," the statement said.

It's unclear if Iranian officials will ease the repressive atmosphere ahead of parliamentary and presidential elections in 2020 and 2021 in hopes of encouraging people to vote and gain legitimacy, a step that has occurred in previous election cycles.

It is unknown if Bolton's departure from the government will lead to significant change in U.S. policy towards Iran and a decrease in tension between the two countries -- which is fostered by Tehran's fear of Washington's efforts to bring regime change.

Iranian officials have responded cautiously to Bolton's exit -- which Trump announced on Twitter on September 10 -- while suggesting that the move will not necessarily result in a meeting between the presidents of the two countries, which Trump has been pushing for.

Iranian President Hassan Rohani said on September 11 that the U.S. must not only remove "warmongers" but also abandon "its warmongering and maximum pressure policies" before such a meeting could take place.

Former Ukrainian Central Bank Governor Valeria Hontareva (file photo)

KYIV -- Valeria Hontareva, the former chief of the National Bank of Ukraine (NBU), says her apartment in Kyiv has been raided by law enforcement officers.

"Ten people in bulletproof vests forced their way with crowbars into my place of residence on Velyka Zhytomyrska [Street] in Kyiv and are conducting a search," Hontareva told the Interfax news agency on September 12, adding that the men were masked and armed.

Hontareva said that no one was in the apartment when the search was conducted. She said local authorities in Kyiv, including the prosecutor-general and police, knew that her current residence is in London.

Ukraine's State Bureau for Investigations neither confirmed nor rejected the report about the search, but said that offices of the state-owned military concern Ukroboronprom were being searched over a probe of alleged misdeeds by the former NBU leadership in 2016.

A week earlier, Hontareva said that unknown attackers burned a car belonging to her daughter-in-law in front of her residence in Kyiv on the night of September 4.

On August 26, a car ran over Hontareva’s foot in London sending her to the hospital with broken bones.

She said on September 9 that she might apply for political asylum in Britain, alleging that the incidents indicated pressure imposed on her by Ukrainian authorities.

Hontareva's efforts to clean up Ukraine's financial sector as the NBU chairwoman in 2014-2018 irked wealthy oligarchs, who critics say have treated the country's banks like their private coffers.

Hontareva also came under fire from some ordinary Ukrainians who blamed her for losses they suffered after she was appointed to follow advice from the International Monetary Fund to partially abandon state support for the hryvnya currency.

During Hontareva-led reforms, international auditors found a $5.5 billion hole on PrivatBank’s balance sheet, prompting the NBU to use taxpayer funds to nationalize it.

The bank was co-owned by billionaire oligarch Ihor Kolomoyskiy, whom Hontareva has accused of threatening her and of being behind the incidents in London and Kyiv.

In previous interviews, Kolomoyskiy -- a former business associate of President Volodymyr Zelenskiy -- has said he did nothing wrong at PrivatBank and there is no evidence tying him to the events involving Hontareva and her family.

Hontareva said she started receiving veiled threats from Kolomoyskiy three years ago and public threats in her direction from last year.

Authorities are investigating Hontareva in two criminal probes. In one of these she is being treated as a witness, the other as a suspect for abusing her office as a central bank official.

She hasn't appeared for questioning in Ukraine, calling the cases "fabricated" and aimed at applying pressure on her for her role in nationalizing PrivatBank.

On August 27, a Kyiv court granted authorities permission to "forcibly" bring her in for questioning, although she has lived in Britain for a year as a research fellow at the London School of Economics.

With reporting by Interfax

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"Watchdog" is a blog with a singular mission -- to monitor the latest developments concerning human rights, civil society, and press freedom. We'll pay particular attention to reports concerning countries in RFE/RL's broadcast region.

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