A revolutionary court handed down harsh prison sentences to eight Facebook users in Iran on July 13, sending a clear message to civil society, journalists, and those using the internet for artistic and creative purposes. Despite President Rouhani’s commitment to expand rights online, these were some of the harshest sentences passed in recent months: between them, the eight Facebook activists face 127 years in prison.
But the online community in Iran is no stranger to intimidation, arrest, and abuse. Satirical blogger Mehdi Alizadeh Fakhrabadi is one of dozens of people who have been targeted and arrested for their online activity, stemming from the wider crackdown on civil society that followed the 2009 disputed election. His friends and family have become increasingly worried about him in recent months, particularly because he has spoken out on the appalling prison conditions he and other inmates endure.
The writer was arrested in 2011—the day of his wedding—accused of “immorality,” offending the Supreme Leader, Islamic Republic authorities and the prophets, and a range of other charges. He was taken to Evin Prison’s Cell Block 350, well known for the incarceration of political prisoners, though his wife and family were not informed.
Shortly after his arrest, Fakhrabadi’s wife appealed to the judge and prosecutor for his release, and for further information about his whereabouts. After several days—during which police raided the couple’s house looking for personal items that would further incriminate the blogger—the prosecutor wrote to her, stating that her husband was an “incorrigible offender” and that, under religious law, their marriage was “invalid”. She was forced to divorce her husband with immediate effect.
After a year in detention, the court condemned Fakhrabadi to nine years’ imprisonment, two in years exile, seven years deprivation of social rights and a fine of close to $4,000. Then, in November 2013, Judge Abolghasem Salavati—well known for harsh sentencing and dubbed a “hanging judge”—labeled him an “enemy of God on earth” and sentenced him to death.
On hearing the news of his sentencing, both Fakhrabadi’s parents were hospitalized for severe stress and nervous conditions. The 33-year-old blogger appealed, and the Supreme Court of Justice reversed the sentence, sending the case back to a court in Mashhad. He is currently being held at Vakil Abad Prison.
Last year, Fakhrabadi wrote to Ahmed Shaheed, the UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Iran, describing the conditions in prison and appealing to him for help. “I, Mehdi Alizadeh Fakhrabadi, blogger and defender of liberty and humanity, write this letter from Vakil Abad prison in Mashhad. This prison is one of the most terrifying prisons in Iran. We political prisoners are kept with common criminals, some of whom are murderers and very dangerous.
“About 85 prisoners are kept in a three- by four-foot cell. We have no place to sleep and at best we can sleep four hours a day, cramped in like sardines. The noise is deafening. We are constantly beaten and humiliated. When they take us to court our hands and feet are shackled. We are even threatened with sexual assault.”
“The prosecutor forced my wife to divorce me”, he wrote to Shaheed. “My physical condition is critical. Twelve times I have gone into convulsion and three times I have gone into a coma.”
The special rapporteur has prepared four reports on the human rights situation in Iran for the U.N.; the most recent was published in March and presented to the Human Rights Council. He has called for the Iranian government to support civil rights and acknowledge the dire situation for the country’s 895 political prisoners, of which Fakhrabadi is one.
It has been reported that after writing to Shaheed, pressure on Fakhrabadi has increased and he has been repeatedly beaten.
Prior to his 2011 arrest, Fakhrabadi was detained on two other occasions. As a university student, he was arrested after he published a satirical article and released on bail after three days in prison. After a lengthy trial, he was acquitted, but he soon resumed his blogging and ran literary-focused websites The Little Prince and The Red and the Black. After publishing dozens of short stories and articles, he was arrested again and spent 121 days in solitary confinement, during which he was tortured and forced to confess. Although he was released after paying a bond of more than $130,000, according to the civil rights activist Mitra Pourshajari, he was forced to report to the authorities in Tehran every few months. Although his most current sentencing has been sent back to court, there is little hope among the human rights community that there will be any leniency applied to his case.
There has been little change to the situation for human rights activists and dissenting voices in Iran since Rouhani’s election and, judging by the recent sentences, Iranian authorities do not show signs of easing up on those members of society who use the internet to share news or take part in or organize activism. Mehdi Alizadeh Fakhrabadi is one of many writers in Iran who continues to make his voice heard, appealing to the international community despite the considerable dangers he faces.
Further information on the case of Mehdi Alizadeh Fakhrabadi can be found at the Facebook page of Mitra Pourshajari (Persian only).