“The intelligence ministry has never harassed anybody,” announced Minister of Intelligence Mahmoud Alavi on a television program on August 19. “The intelligence ministry has not harassed any professor or university student or students at seminaries. We have enjoyed a happy tranquility. We have not harassed the media and our interactions with the media online have been constructive.”
The Promise to End “Restrictions on Liberty in the Name of Security”
When Hassan Rouhani ran for a second term as the president of the Islamic Republic in 2017, he issued a 255-page campaign manifesto entitled “Iran Once More.” It made one significant promise: “Restrictions on liberty in the name of security must end.”
With that and other promises, Rouhani returned to the office of the president on Tehran’s Pasteur Avenue and presented Mahmoud Alavi as the Minister of Intelligence to parliamentarians for their vote of confidence. In that session of parliament, however, Rouhani also revealed an important truth: the illegal treatment of detainees by intelligence agents.
“The intelligence ministry is doing better than before in how it treats law-breakers, but I am still not quite happy with the way that intelligence agents treat detainees,” Rouhani told parliament. “Reports I have received in this regard are not satisfactory and Mr. Alavi must solve these problems.”
While presenting his credentials to parliament for its vote of confidence, Mahmoud Alavi said: “The intelligence ministry accepts its responsibilities and it will put accountability to responsible authorities, supervisory agencies and the people on its agenda.”
Three years later there has been no official report of what the intelligence ministry has actually done to turn these promises into reality. However, in his live television broadcast on August 19, Alavi claimed that in its dealings with civil society — university students and teachers, seminary students and journalists — the ministry had not harassed them, despite the fact that President Rouhani had revealed that such problems did exist and had ordered Alavi to solve them.
Is Alavi’s claim true? Has the intelligence ministry treated civil society activists with decency?
IranWire looks at the evidence.
To fact-check this claim, IranWire looked at examples of how civil activists have been treated as reported by the media. The existence of parallel intelligence agencies and the rivalries between them make it difficult to pinpoint the exact responsibilities of these agencies in individual national security cases; the role played by the intelligence ministry in cases where individuals are arrested by the Revolutionary Guards Intelligence Organization is not clear. Therefore, IranWire must limit itself to examples where the intelligence ministry has been directly involved.
1. Academics, Students and Student Activists
Academics, university students and student activists have been among the civil rights activists who have had to deal with the intelligence ministry in recent years. Many students who have dealt with the intelligence ministry know what it means to be deprived of continuing their education and from teaching, to be jailed and to be tortured. But have such practices ended under the tenure of Mr. Mahmoud Alavi as intelligence minister?
Contrary to Alavi’s claim, the arrest of students following any protest or demonstration has been a fixture of the intelligence ministry’s conduct. For instance, according to several reports, after widespread protests in late 2017 and early 2018, at least 40 students were arrested by the intelligence ministry. Similar arrests were carried out during later events, including the nationwide protests following the 300 percent increase in gas prices in November 2019.
In a report titled “New dimensions in cooperation between university security departments and security agencies in suppressing students,” the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) presented a study of student arrests at protests following the shooting down of the Ukraine International Airlines flight 752 over Tehran on January 8. The report also examined the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution’s establishment of new bylaws to crack down on universities.
The report quotes a student activist describing how students from various universities had been summoned and arrested by the intelligence ministry in cooperation with the universities’ security departments. “During the interrogations when we say that the situation is not good and the officials are embezzling, they tell us we are repeating what people say outside the borders of Iran,” said the student. “Unfortunately, especially after the new disciplinary bylaws, the atmosphere has become more closed and repressive. The new bylaws allow the security departments and outside agencies to investigate students online. Unfortunately, especially since September of this year , the security department of the university, which even before worked closely with security agencies and specifically with the intelligence ministry, has sent regular reports incriminating students to security agencies, and this has led to more intervention in universities by intelligence and security institutions.”
The report names Bahareh Hedayat, Amin Sharifi and Moeen Zareian as being among the students who were arrested in November 2019 protests. “Security and intelligence agents pressured us to dissolve the university’s Islamic Students Society before ‘we come and close it down,’” a student told the Center for Human Rights in Iran. “Then after they closed down the society, they summoned all of its members one by one. In another city, it was the Cyber Police that summoned the students. If we look carefully, we can see that, with the cooperation of the university’s security department, all military and security agencies have worked to suppress the students and restrict freedoms in the universities. The usual procedure is that the head of the security department phones and tells the student to go to the intelligence ministry’s information headquarters or to the security police or some other place like it on a certain date. In other words, the department is directly working with them, specifically as an arm of the intelligence ministry.”
Another example is the case of Saha Mortezaei, the former secretary of Tehran University’s Students Union. Following the protests of late 2017 and early 2018, she was arrested by the intelligence ministry and was thrown out of the university. On November 6, 2019, she was arrested again at Tehran University’s dormitory after she protested against her dismissal from the university.
2. The Seminary Students
The Shia seminaries in the city of Qom might have been mostly left alone by intelligence agencies, but this is not true for Sunni seminary students, and specifically for students of Sunni seminaries in the province of Sistan and Baluchistan.
For instance, in August 2019, the Campaign for Baluchi Activists reported that a 13-year-old seminary student had been summoned by the provincial Intelligence Bureau, interrogated for two hours and threatened with more summons and more interrogations. A year earlier, two teachers from this seminary were arrested and released on bail after six months in jail.
A most recent example of the intelligence ministry’s harassment of seminary students took place on August 9 of this year when, according to the Campaign for Baluchi Activists, Rahmat Shahrestan-Zehi, an eighth-grade Sunni seminary student in the city of Mehrestan, was arrested by Zahedan police and interrogated by the Intelligence Bureau. He was told he would be summoned again for more interrogations.
3. Journalists and Reporters
The harassment of journalists in recent years by security agencies including the intelligence ministry is well documented, including by the journalists themselves and by international human rights organizations.
For instance, on February 7, 2020, Reporters without Borders reported that, since January 8, the intelligence ministry and the Revolutionary Guards’ Intelligence Organization had summoned and interrogated at least 21 journalists in connection with their coverage of the Guards’ shooting down of the Ukrainian passenger jet in January. None had been arrested but they were afraid they were going to be detained. According to the report, some of these journalists were warned by their editors about their comments on social media and some were forced to disable their social media accounts or only write about the weather.
In these years, not only has the intelligence ministry prevented journalists from the free exercise of their profession by summoning and threatening them, but there are numerous reports that their families living outside Iran have been threatened as well.
It is worth once again examining the claim made by Mahmoud Alavi on live TV. “The intelligence ministry has never harassed anybody,” he said on August 19. “The intelligence ministry has not harassed any professor or student at universities or students at seminaries. We have enjoyed a happy tranquility. We have not harassed the media and our interactions with the media online have been constructive.”
Contrary to Alavi’s claim, fact-checking by IranWire shows that the harassment of university and seminary students and journalists has become routine for intelligence ministry agents and there are daily reports that civil activists, including students and journalists, have been summoned, arrested and threatened. Furthermore, the security departments of universities are now acting as agents of the intelligence ministry and, by summoning and threatening students, have turned universities into suffocating military-style barracks.
Therefore, IranWire awards Mr. Mahmoud Alavi a “Pinocchio Lie” badge for claiming that the intelligence ministry has not been harassing students and journalists.
You can find out more about our fact-checking methodology here.
Read other articles in the series: