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Iran's Leader Said It Was OK To Criticize Him. So Why Was This Man Sentenced To Prison?

Mohammad Ali Kamfiruzi speaks at the meeting with Iran's supreme leader in 2016.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei assured a doctoral student in a 2016 meeting that there was nothing wrong with criticizing the country's top official.

"Speaking against me is neither [reprimandable] nor is it a crime, I've said it many times," Khamenei said at the July 2, 2016, meeting with a group of handpicked students, including Mohammad Ali Kamfiruzi.

The young student had directly confronted Khamenei over rights abuses in the Islamic republic, including violating people's freedom of expression.

Four years later, the former student who became a lawyer has been given a two-year suspended prison sentence for offering mild criticism of Khamenei in a 2018 speech.

Kamfiruzi -- whose father was a Basij fighter killed in the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War -- has also been ordered to make 60 trips to Shiraz, his hometown, within five years to report to the intelligence branch of the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), whose commanders are appointed by Khamenei.

Feared Unit

Kamfiruzi thinks the feared unit is the one who pushed for his sentence.

Kamfiruzi published details of his case earlier this week on Twitter. There he said the IRGC's feared intelligence branch had been pursuing him for the "last three or four years."

The IRGC's intelligence unit has detained many activists, journalists, environmentalists, and dual citizens in recent years.

Kamfiruzi said he was convicted by a Revolutionary Court in Shiraz of insulting Iran's highest authority based on two sentences in a speech he made in the south-central city two years ago to mark Students Day.

"The performance of the leader can also be criticized when it comes to the rights and freedoms of citizens," is the first one and the second: "It is regrettable if the leader is not aware of the violations of citizen's rights [in some of the bodies under his supervision] and if he's aware and does not take action it is 100 times more unfortunate."

The case highlights the high-level of state repression in Iran, where even those loyal to the Islamic republic -- which includes Kamifiruzi -- are being prosecuted for speaking their mind and criticizing the country's security apparatus.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has the last say on all matters in his country.
Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has the last say on all matters in his country.

In his 2016 meeting with Khamenei, a video of which was posted on the leader's website, Kamifiruzi highlighted a long list of rights violations -- including pressure on the press and student publications -- and the state media's defamation of critics and former government officials, an apparent reference to opposition figures Mir Hossein Musavi and his wife, Zahra Rahnavard, as well as reformist cleric Mehdi Karrubi.

All of them have been living under house arrest since 2011.

'My Father Was Martyred'

Kamifiruzi concluded his remarks -- which have received so much attention -- by asking Khamenei how the establishment should deal with people like him who are "attached" to the 1979 Islamic Revolution and the establishment but are critical of some repressive policies and social ills.

"I was three years old when my father was martyred. I have no doubt that if -- God forbid -- one day any foreign power has [bad intentions] towards Iran, I would be the first person to go to the front lines to defend this [Islamic] establishment and Iran's territorial integrity," he said.

"Despite supporting you stances regarding hostility towards [the United States] and economic justice, I oppose some of your views regarding the domestic politics of the work of some of the bodies under your control," Kamirfiruzi added, calling on the supreme leader to "please tell me how the establishment should deal with me and people like me."

In recent years, those criticizing Khamenei have been detained, pressured, tortured, and sent to jail.

Some of them -- namely Musavi, Rahnavard, and Karrubi -- have been put under house arrest with limited contact with the outside world and amid reports of their deteriorating health.

Despite the pressure, criticism of the leader who has the last say on all matters in Iran has been on the rise, with many chanting against him or calling him a dictator in recent street protests in the capital, Tehran, and other cities.

In recent months a number of activists have also issued public letters calling on Khamenei to resign.

Khamenei has not ever publicly reacted to the criticism. And despite what he told Kamifiruzi, it apparently will not be tolerated.

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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL focusing on Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is the author of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.