The murder of a young cleric has fueled fresh battles about freedom of expression online and cybercrime, with hardliners calling for President Rouhani’s administration to be stripped of its powers to control the internet.
On April 27, 46-year-old cleric Mostafa Ghasemi was shot dead in the city of Hamadan as he left his seminary. A dramatic ambush followed, during which police shot and killed the killer.
Ghasemi’s assassin was later identified as Behrooz Hajilou who, according to reports, got out of a Peugeot 206 with a Kalashnikov, shot Ghasemi and then fled the crime scene. Ghasemi resisted arrest, leading to the fatal shoot-out. He was identified by the police 24 hours later.
Speaking at a press conference a day after the incident, General Bakhsh-Ali Kamrani Saleh, the police chief of Hamadan Province, called Ghasemi a “corrupt man” with a record of “fighting, unruly behavior, felony, kidnapping and drinking alcohol.” He added that the assassin had been identified “within half an hour” and the operation to apprehend him had lasted “10 to 20 minutes.”
According to General Kamrani, between 10 and 15 minutes after local people called an emergency number to report the crime, the car was identified. He said that, within “20 to 30 minutes,” the police had discovered the identity of the murderer. He added that “more than 50 operational and intelligence teams” had been in pursuit of the assassin and, before getting to him, they succeeded in arresting four of his accomplices who had been about to escape.
Thirty-Two Arrested for Posting Comments
Two days after Hajilou was killed, Kamrani told the media that the Iranian Cyber Police had also arrested 32 people who had left comments on the murderer’s Instagram page. “None of these people were connected to this criminal and they were not acquainted with him in any way,” he said. “Besides, a number of them lived in Mashhad, Shiraz and other cities.”
The commander of Hamadan’s provincial police offered no other information about where the 32 arrested people were being detained or the charges against them. He indicated that the arrests were legal — despite the fact that the people had no direct links to the murderer and had merely posted comments on his Instagram page.
But does leaving comments on the Instagram page of murderer constitute a crime? IranWire asked Hasan Bayat, a lawyer in Tehran. “From a legal point of view,” he said, “a person who commits a criminal act like murder is considered a criminal. Anybody who aids the committing of a crime is also considered a criminal.” Aiding a crime, he says, means that “before or during the crime, this person makes it possible for the criminal to commit the criminal act by providing tools for the crime or by facilitating the crime — For instance, if this person puts up a ladder so that a thief can climb a wall.” However, he says, it is not a crime to “comment in support or against the act after the act has been committed.”
Bayat explained in more detail what legal authorities should do if they are worried that comments about criminal activities might lead to further crimes. “From a legal point of view, let us say that the police official is worried [about an act of] organized crime and wants to pursue it legally to prevent it being repeated. In this case, since no obvious crime has been committed, he must inform the judiciary about it, and if the judicial authority decides that there is an organized connection between the commenters and the crime, then they [the people who commented] can be arrested. But there is no justification for arresting them if they have, for example, expressed joy [about the crime committed].”
Following the murder of the cleric and the police killing of the assassin, many news agencies reported further on the assassin, giving his full name as Behrouz Hajilou. They reported that he had posted photographs of himself holding various firearms on his Instagram account. In one photograph, Hajilou is seen aiming a gun at the camera.
As of yet, there is no official word on the motive behind the assassination. However, since the murder took place, media outlets have produced contradictory reports about what happened. On April 27, quoting “an informed source,” the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) reported that “in a post on his Instagram page, the killer of the cleric in Hamadan has confessed to his crime.”
But two days after the assassination, the police chief of Hamadan Province said that it was a “lie” that the murderer had been arrested because of his confession on Instagram. He claimed that the police had identified the killer only “15 minutes after the murder”. Earlier, Kamrani had said that the murderer’s identity had been identified “half an hour” after the murder.
Shortly after news emerged that Behrouz Hajilou had been killed by the police, Mohammad-Javad Azari Jahromi, the Minister of Information and Communications Technology, posted on Instagram that Hajilou was a “criminal,” adding that Hajilou’s Instagram page was rife with racist material. Rokna News Agency characterized Hajilou as a “well-known villain.”
Trial by Tweet
But the story had another twist. Not long after news of the assassination was published, hardliner media and individuals attacked the Iranian movie and TV actress Mahnaz Afshar following a comment she posted on Twitter. They claimed one of her tweets — which has now been removed — was actually the reason behind the assassination of Mostafa Ghasemi. In their own tweets, these individuals and media outlets even went so far as to ask for her to be put on trial.
Mahnaz Afshar has recently become more engaged with political and social issues, regularly commenting about them online. A few days prior to the recent scandal, she had retweeted content posted from a fake account — a phony handle of a supposed clergyman going by the name “Seyed Mostafa Hejazi.”
The tweet encouraged Iranian women to become concubines for members of Hashd al-Sha'bi, the Iraqi Shia “Popular Mobilization Forces,” militias organized and supported by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, and included a photograph of a Shia clergyman. “I invite all single mojahed sisters to become concubines of Hashd al-Sha'bi brothers if they can. Even if for one day they become concubines of our Iraqi brethren God will reward them in the afterlife. The reward for becoming a concubine is equal to the reward for one thousand years of praying...”
Mahnaz Afshar retweeted the tweet without knowing that it was fake, and condemned it. She wrote: “Pity on those people who were scandalized...when I talked about the honor of our Khuzestani brothers and accused me and people like me of racism but are now silent in the face of such humiliation” [Persian link].
Part of the “humiliation” the tweet referred to concerned Iraqi militiamen who helped victims of the recent floods in Iran. Afshar was likely expressing frustration that the government was unable or unwilling to deal with the dire flood situation adequately, leaving it to the Iraqi militiamen to help — a “humiliation” because, for many in Khuzestan, the sight of Iraqis in military uniform brought back dark memories of the eight-year Iran-Iraq war. They were shocked to see armed Iraqis on Iranian soil. As one Khuzestani said: “They feel that not only have they have lost everything but now foreign forces are violating their homeland as well.”
Afshar’s tweet expressed her sympathy with the people of Khuzestan, and also showed her frustration with how she had been treated by her critics, but it is not clear why she said she’d been accused of racism, or who she was being racist against. Her retweet was an attempt to prove that her previous tweets and comments — possibly about the Iraqi militiamen, which could have been construed as anti-Arab — were not racist.
Since news emerged that the tweet was fake and not posted by a cleric, Afshar has not commented on her decision to re-tweet the post.
Prior to this, on April 13, Afshar had criticized and retweeted comments [in Persian] made by a clergyman about Yasaman Aryani, a civil rights activist and a theater actress who was arrested after she distributed flowers in a metro car and protested against mandatory hijab laws. In his tweet, the clergyman had called for Aryani to be hanged.
The level of online attacks against Mahnaz Afshar following the tweet reached such a high level that, when asked if a legal case would be filed against her, Javad Javidnia, the deputy to Iran’s Attorney General, replied: “the judiciary is taking the necessary action.” When asked if the tweet by Mahnaz Afshar had incited Ghasemi’s assassin to commit murder, Javadi declined to give a direct answer. Instead, he said: “these are legal questions and must be examined. In such questions we cannot take action based on a wave [of attacks].”
IranWire asked Hasan Bayat whether Mahnaz Afshar could be put on trial for a tweet that has no clear connection with the killer or his unknown motive. “According to the laws of the Islamic Republic and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, freedom of expression is a basic human right,” he says. “All citizens have the right to express their views about everything that goes on in the country. And Ms. Afshar has expressed her views, just like any other citizen. Now, her expressed views might have been a little hasty and wrong, meaning that she has retweeted a tweet by a clergyman without verifying its authenticity. But I read that tweet and, from a legal point of view, it does not [amount to] libel and does not incite other people to commit a crime.”
A Move to Silence Celebrities?
“It seems that there is a move to silence celebrities who are active on social networks so that they will stop expressing their opinions,” said Bayat. “Celebrities’ opinions have great influence on people and, perhaps the regime wants to make it more costly for celebrities to express their views. Celebrities cannot be easily pressured. If an unknown citizen says something that the government does not like, he might be arrested and sentenced and perhaps nothing would happen. But if a well-known person is arrested it is bound to have national and international consequences. So it seems that the call to put Mahnaz Afshar on trial because of her tweets is more like a game to increase the cost of expressing opinions for celebrities so that they will cool it down voluntarily.”
Fars News Agency, which is affiliated with the Revolutionary Guards, and many other hardliner websites stated that the tweet encouraging women to become concubines of Iraqi militiamen was not posted by a Shia cleric but was planted by people who oppose the Islamic Republic. They claim Mahnaz Afshar is guilty of inciting the murder by retweeting the comment — despite the fact that, before his death, Behrouz Hajilou, the cleric’s killer, made no mention of Afshar’s tweet on his Instagram page or anywhere else.
On April 28, the news site Khabar Online, quoting unofficial sources, reported that Mahnaz Afshar had been banned from leaving Iran. According to its report, Afshar had been scheduled to fly to Germany on that day to participate in a workshop.
But now Mahnaz Afshar is being blamed for the assassination of the clergyman from Hamadan. So far, however, she has not responded to the attacks on her.
Some hardliners, using the Persian hashtag #محاکمه_مهناز_افشار (“Put Mahnaz Afshar on Trial”), are asking for legal action to be taken against the actress, calling for her to be charged with inciting murder. “Since the tweet by Mahnaz Afshar has played a role in inciting the murder of the Hamadani cleric, I ask the judiciary to ban her from travel so that the question can be further clarified,” tweeted someone going by the name “Mehdi.”
Responsible for Two Murders
“Ms. Afshar,” tweeted Ali Rajabi, “you are an accomplice to the murder of two people: the Hamadani cleric who was murdered as a result of your blind hate-mongering and the murderer, who was a victim of your irresponsible hate-mongering.”
But Zia Nabavi, a student activist who was released from prison in April 2018 after serving eight years, came to her defense. “You can oppose the views of Mahnaz Afshar and respond to her tweets in cyberspace, but there is no justification for making a legal connection between her and the Hamadani cleric,” he tweeted. “Otherwise all principlists, from the top down, must be put on trial for the Chain Murders” — a reference to Intelligence Ministry agents’ murder of numerous dissidents and intellectuals in the 1990s. The Iranian government later branded those responsible for the murders as “rogue agents.”
Lawyer Seyed Ali Mojtahedzadeh also tweeted about the controversy.,“Even though I find the words of Ms. Mahnaz Afshar very distasteful, relating the martyrdom of the Hamadani cleric to a tweet that was sent after the incident is sheer stupidity because incitement must occur before the act and it cannot be called incitement after the fact,” he wrote.
Responding to the murder, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei mentioned Instagram and instructed the police to take action against the online firearms trade. At the same time, a number of clerics asked Khamenei to remove powers from the executive branch so President Rouhani’s administration was no longer in charge of the country’s internet and could not have a say regarding people’s access to it.
Police officials have yet to say anything about the motive of the clergyman’s killer. But now the future of an actress hangs in the balance and, given hardliners’ attempt to undermine the authority of Rouhani’s government, so does the future of the internet and the people who use it to communicate, share ideas and news, and be pro-active when it comes to pressing issues affecting their daily lives.