Welcome back to The Farda Briefing, an RFE/RL newsletter that tracks the key issues in Iran and explains why they matter. To subscribe, click here.
I'm RFE/RL correspondent Golnaz Esfandiari. Here's what I've been following during the past week and what I'm watching for in the days ahead.
The Big Issue
Iran's top Sunni cleric, Molavi Abdolhamid, denounced the deadly government crackdown on months-long anti-establishment protests during a December 30 sermon in Sistan-Baluchistan Province.
The outspoken cleric said Iranians want "freedom and justice," saying demonstrators were protesting against "discrimination, corruption, and lack of freedom."
Abdolhamid also criticized the repression of Iran's ethnic and religious minorities, including Baha'is, who have faced systematic persecution in the Shi'a-majority nation.
Why It Matters: Since the nationwide protests erupted in September, Abdolhamid has become a key dissenting voice inside the Islamic republic.
Following a crackdown on protesters in Sistan-Baluchistan on September 30 that left scores dead, the cleric said he held senior officials, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, "responsible."
Abdolhamid, a member of Iran's beleaguered Baluch ethnic minority, has even gone as far as calling for a referendum on protesters' demands, which include ending the current clerical system.
What's Next: State media affiliated with Iran's political hard-liners have criticized Abdolhamid, saying his comments about Baha'is were against "national security."
The authorities have yet to take action against Abdolhamid, whose popularity has soared amid the protests. But a document from the hard-line Fars news agency that was leaked in November suggested Khamenei has told security and military officials to try and discredit Abdolhamid instead of arresting him.
Abbas Milani, director of the Iranian Studies program at Stanford University, told the Washington Post in December that Abdolhamid has "a stature that makes him almost untouchable for the regime."
Stories You Might Have Missed
- Iran sentenced a writer and book illustrator to death on December 30, informed sources told RFE/RL's Radio Farda. Mehdi Bahman was arrested in October after he gave an interview to Israeli TV. No details about the charges against Bahman have been released. In the interview, Bahman criticized the authorities for imposing Islamic Shari'a law. He also said many Iranians have no problem with Israel or Jews and want their government to normalize relations with Israel.
- Analysts said the protests raging across Iran are unlikely to subside, despite a brutal state crackdown in which hundreds of demonstrators have been killed and thousands more detained. Anger over decades of state repression and economic mismanagement remains widespread, and analysts predict the protest movement is likely to continue as the gulf widens between the ruling clerics and Iran's young population.
What We're Watching
The Association of Iranian Journalists has expressed concern over proposed legislation that it said is "likely to further restrict the free flow of information and media activities."
The association said the contents of two draft bills have not been made public in order "to keep them away from the eyes of the public."
Lawyer Mehdi Hojati said last week that one of the bills designed to combat "fake news" will "without any doubt" limit free speech in the country.
What's Next: The warning from the association came amid intensified censorship in Iran.
At least 70 journalists have been arrested amid the state crackdown on the nationwide protests, turning the Islamic republic into the top jailer of journalists, according to the New York-based Committee To Protect Journalists.
Until next time,
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