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Iran reportedly executed at least 246 people last year. (file photo)

Two Iranians have been sentenced to death for allegedly insulting the Prophet Muhammad, according to a news outlet that covers news in Iran.

The Human Rights Activists News Agency (HRANA) reported on April 22 that the two men were arrested and transferred to prison in Arak, the capital of Markazi Province, in May 2020.

An Arak court convicted the pair of “insulting the prophet,” which carries the death penalty, the report said.

It was not clear what the charge stemmed from.

One of the two men was identified as Yusef Mehrdad, a father of three, who was reportedly held in solitary confinement for two months following his arrest.

He is facing a number of other charges, including insulting Iranian leaders and acting against national security.

The second man has not been identified by HRANA.

In 2017, Iran dropped a death sentence handed to a man convicted of insulting the Prophet Muhammad in a series of Facebook posts. The sentence had been condemned by rights groups and activists.

Amnesty International said in its annual review of the death penalty published earlier this week that Iran executed at least 246 people last year, remaining the world’s second top executioner after China.

The London-based human rights watchdog said recorded executions in Iran continued to be lower than previous years, but the country “increasingly used the death penalty as a weapon of political repression against dissidents, protesters, and members of ethnic minority groups, in violation of international law.”

The Russian government has designated the Latvia-based independent Meduza news outlet as a foreign agent -- a move that will require it to label itself as such and will subject it to increased government scrutiny.

The Russian Justice Ministry made the announcement on April 23 on its website, while Meduza confirmed the news in a tweet.

"Hi, everyone! We’re Russia’s latest 'foreign agent!'" the media outlet wrote, though in a later post it said it rejected the designation and will appeal the move, adding that its chances of success "are slim."

In addition, the Justice Ministry added the little-known Moscow-based First Anti-Corruption Media project, which describes itself as “a federal media outlet specializing in the fight against corruption in Russia,” to the foreign-agent registry.

The Justice Ministry did not offer any explanation for its action.

Russia’s so-called “foreign agent” legislation was adopted in 2012 and has been modified repeatedly. It requires nongovernmental organizations that receive foreign assistance and that the government deems to be engaged in political activity to be registered, to identify themselves as “foreign agents,” and to submit to audits. Later modifications of the law targeted foreign-funded media.

Human Rights Watch has described the legislation as “restrictive” and intended “to demonize independent groups.”

Meduza was formed in 2014 by the former chief editor of Lenta.ru, Galina Timchenko, after she and most of Lenta.ru’s editorial staff left following an ownership change.

According to the independent Medialogia monitoring site, Meduza was among the top 10 most-cited Russian-language Internet sources in 2020 and was No. 1 in the ranking of most-linked-to social-media posts.

The general director of First Anti-Corruption Media, Dmitry Verbitsky, wrote that he did not understand why his company had been listed since it does not receive any foreign funding. He said the company would appeal its listing.

In 2017, the Russian government placed RFE/RL’s Russian Service on the list, along with six other RFE/RL Russian-language news services, and Current Time, a network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA.

At the end of 2020, the legislation was modified to allow the Russian government to include individuals, including foreign journalists, on its “foreign agents” list and to impose restrictions on them.

The Russian state media monitor Roskomnadzor last year adopted rules requiring listed media to mark all written materials with a lengthy notice in large text, all radio materials with an audio statement, and all video materials with a 15-second text declaration. The agency has prepared hundreds of complaints against RFE/RL’s projects for failure to follow such rules that could result in fines totaling more than $1 million.

RFE/RL has called the fines “a state-sponsored campaign of coercion and intimidation,” while the U.S. State Department has described them as “intolerable.”

With reporting by Reuters and RIA

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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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