Even as Iran’s coronavirus epidemic has become a severe crisis, impacting every aspect of life in the country, the Iranian government is continuing to summon and arrest its critics as usual.
Mehdi Hajati, a former member of Shiraz City Council, was arrested for tweets in which he had criticized the decision to not quarantine the city of Qom where the epidemic started. There are also reports that Mohammad Mokhtari, the 36-year-old captain of the Damash football club in the northern province of Gilan, another epicenter of the crisis, has been arrested by the Revolutionary Guards’ Intelligence Unit on a warrant from the prosecutor. On his Instagram page, Mokhtari had harshly criticized the officials of the Islamic Republic for their response to the epidemic.
Hajati, who was temporarily released from jail only a month ago for earlier actions that drew the ire of the authorities, is now back in prison for his tweets.
“Today, the main enemies of the Iranian people are those who are gambling with the lives of our people to confront a hypothetical enemy,” Hajati had said on Twitter. “The enemies of the Iranian people are individuals like those who prevented Qom to be quarantined.”
Hajati was a young reformist activist in Fars province. He behaved unconventionally in Shiraz City Council meetings recited poetry to deliver his criticism of the authorities. Hajati was arrested on September 25, 2018, after speaking in defense of two Baha’i activists on his Twitter account. He was released on bail after 10 days. But on June 2, 2019, the Revolutionary Court sentenced him to a year in prison. He was kept at Adel Abad Prison in Shiraz until January 23 when he was released “temporarily.”
Fighting Alone for Justice
Even before his arrest for defending the rights of the Baha’is, Hajati had had run-ins with the security agencies and religious institutions of Shiraz. Several times he criticized the guardians (or custodians) of the Shah Cheragh Shrine who he said were destroying historical buildings to expand their own holdings. According to a tweet by Bahram Parsaei, a member of parliament from Shiraz, Hajati had been threatened with prosecution for opposing religious authorities who were destroying part of Iranian history.
Nor did he spare his fellow council members. When Ahmad Reza Dastghaib, the council chairman, used a pejorative term to refer to residents of Shiraz from Lor tribes, Hajati called his statement “fascist and racist.”
Hajati, however, was alone on the council in his fight for the rights of the Baha’is. After he was arrested and sentenced to the year in prison, he was removed from the council; neither his fellow members, nor the governor of Shiraz, resisted the move to replace him.
Now Hajati is once more a prisoner. At a time when reformists have been effectively removed from power, when they are rarely present on the political scene and when they are criticized for their poor performance in the previous parliament and major city councils, figures such as Mehdi Hajati, as well as Mehdi Moghadari, a member of the Isfahan City Council and a supporter of Hajati, and a number of reformist members of parliament, have managed to present a better image of the reformists.
These figures not only avoided slipping into financial corruption, they also stood up for civil rights. But unfortunately such figures are rare among the present-day reformists. Some even consider them extremists rather than reformists.
Last year, after a complaint by Isfahan’s so-called “Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice Headquarters”, the criminal court in Isfahan removed Moghadari [Persian link] from the city council. On charges of “propaganda against the regime” and “creating unease in the public mind,” Moghadari was sentenced to two years in prison and was banned from online and political activities for two years. The court, however, suspended his prison sentence.
Moghadari had brought the wrath of the regime on himself by supporting Mehdi Hajati, as well as women’s rights, including the right to ride a bicycle, by supporting teachers’ unions, by opposing the handover of a gold mine to the Isfahan Seminary and by condemning repressive measures against protesters.
The arrests of Mehdi Hajati and Mohammad Mokhtari, the court summons for Mostafa Faghihi, the managing editor of Entekhab news website, and Hossein Dehbashi, a documentary filmmaker, for daring to criticize the government’s response to the coronavirus epidemic, shows that the security agencies are determined to suppress any criticism of the regime regardless of the wider crisis.
In these critical days, when the dominant issue is the containment of a deadly epidemic, many observers are surprised by the uninterrupted arrests and summons. But they should not be. The security establishment is even more sensitive to criticism at such a dangerous time – because they believe that the critics are targeting both religion and religious authorities and if they are allowed to continue it can lead to a repeat of last November’s nationwide protests.
They also believe that arresting critics in the midst of the coronavirus crisis will have little cost because attention will be focused on the epidemic. The critics, Iran’s authorities seem to think, will be quickly forgotten.
A Footballer is Taken to Jail – then Released
Mohammad Mokhtari, the 36-year-old captain of the Damash football team in the northern province of Gilan, an epicenter of the coronavirus epidemic, was arrested on March 12 by the Revolutionary Guards’ Intelligence Unit for criticizing the Revolutionary Guards, the paramilitary Basij and the clergy. Two days later, however, the media reported that he had been released from detention.
After the severe outbreak of coronavirus in Gilan province, Mokhtari made two online posts that were sharply critical of provincial officials and military and paramilitary organizations and asked why those who had suppressed protesters have now escaped. He also wrote that the number of coronavirus fatalities in Gilan and Rasht, the provincial capital, were many times higher than the official figures.
He was arrested at his home on Thursday, March 12. Until Saturday noon no information about him was available except that he had been arrested by the Revolutionary Guards’ Intelligence Unit. Some hours later he posted a message on his Instagram page and apologized to the Basij and the Revolutionary Guards.
“He was lucky,” a source close to Mokhtari tells IranWire. “Immediately after the Revolutionary Guards’ agents raided his home, a member of parliament from Rasht learned about it and set out to help him.” This MP, Ali Aghazadeh, is a former commander of the Guards and the Basij Organization in Gilan and a current member of the parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Committee. He was reelected to parliament in the most recent election on February 21.
“Before he was taken to the detention center, Mr. Aghazadeh interceded and told them that ‘Mohammad is the face of Rasht. If something happens to him it cannot be easily fixed,’” says the source. “So they threatened him a bit but they did not beat him. For a few hours they put him through a routine interrogation, telling him ‘How dare you be insulting!’ or by asking him the usual questions such as whom he had recently been in contact.’
On the football field, Mokhtari is a quiet and uncontroversial man but, before this, he had repeatedly criticized government officials at Gilan’s sports clubs, especially those assigned to Damash FC.
A few hours after his release the Revolutionary Guards took him to Razi Hospital. There were rumors that agents had confiscated his mobile phone and posted their own material on his Instagram page. But this source says that he was forced to share an Instagram live as soon as he entered the hospital and to show to his followers members of the Revolutionary Guards and of the Basij who were helping the patients in the hospital.
“When they returned him to his home, they made him promise that he would not post another comment, would not talk about events and would not give interviews to the media outside Iran,” says the source. “Now he has quarantined himself inside his house” because of the few hours he had spent at Razi Hospital, a place that appears to be highly contaminated with coronavirus.
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