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Instagram Influencer Flees Iran Fearing Imprisonment

April 30, 2020
Niloufar Rostami
8 min read
Seyed Ahmad Moin-Shirazi, known as Picasso Moin, announced he and his wife had received a 16-year prison sentence in an Instagram video.
Seyed Ahmad Moin-Shirazi, known as Picasso Moin, announced he and his wife had received a 16-year prison sentence in an Instagram video.
Shabnam Shahrokhi has also been convicted for her much sparser activity on the social media platform.
Shabnam Shahrokhi has also been convicted for her much sparser activity on the social media platform.
Moin became famous online for his photos of sports activities, boxing and of himself with his wife and children.
Moin became famous online for his photos of sports activities, boxing and of himself with his wife and children.
"We came to understand that they were playing with our lives. We are still wondering what we did to deserve this treatment."
"We came to understand that they were playing with our lives. We are still wondering what we did to deserve this treatment."

Kickboxing champion and social media personality Picasso Moin and his wife Shabnam Shahrokhi have both been sentenced to 16 years in prison by an Iranian court for a litany of spurious crimes based on the content of his popular Instagram account.

In a video posted on Instagram on Wednesday, April 29, the Iranian influencer, whose real name is Seyed Ahmad Moin-Shirazi, explained to followers that he and his wife had been forced to flee the country in September 2019 due to the four charges against them.

The young couple stand accused of of "propaganda against the regime," "spreading corruption and prostitution," "injuring public decency," and "spreading vulgar and obscene content". Documentary “evidence” of these allegations were taken from the Instagram contents of Picasso and his wife.

Last year the pair had to undergo two rounds of interrogation by Ministry of Intelligence agents, after which a file was submitted to Evin Prison Court. Branch 26 of the Revolutionary Court, presided over by Judge Iman Afshari, has now sentenced the couple to 16 years in prison in absentia.

The bulk of the sentence relates to the “spreading corruption and prostitution” charge. Picasso Moin was sentenced to seven years on this charge alone, and Shabnam Shahrokhi to six.

"We will not return to Iran because of this unfair treatment of me and my wife," Picasso Moin told his followers this week. "Because of the lawsuit and concerns about my arrest and unfair treatment, we will not return to Iran.

“At the same time, our hearts are broken. We were really good citizens; we were not bad. If Iran does not want us, why should we insist on staying in Iran? I lived in Germany and had the same life as in Iran, and now I am in Turkey."


Who is Picasso Moin and Why Do Officials Care?

Seyed Ahmad Moin-Shirazi was an ordinary citizen of Tehran before becoming famous for his posts online. These mostly featured photos of sports and boxing practice, and photos alongside his wife and children. The portrayal of a handsome, dedicated athlete and friendly family appealed to many and eventually garnered him a massive following of 569,000 fans on Instagram.

Not unsurprisingly, Picasso Moin would sometimes comment on social and cultural issues in society, from participating in the global "So No to Plastic" campaign to a more localized effort, "Helping to Build a Better City for the Disabled". His Instagram posts are received rapturously and generate thousands of comments, with one recent video of his son “liked” 450,000 times. In the past he has also shared numerous photos and videos of his veiled mother and pious-looking father.

In his sporting career, Moin-Shirazi entered the Eskra Sports Academy in Germany in 2000 to compete in boxing and won the championship of several competitions. He returned to Iran a few years ago, married Shabnam Shahrokhi and made a living in Tehran. He also holds a doctorate in acupuncture.  

But in September 2019, Picasso Moin and his family abruptly left Iran for to Turkey. They have been there ever since.

In his Instagram post this week, he explained that 10 months ago he and his wife were summoned to the Ministry of Intelligence building in Valiasr Street, Tehran. They each submitted to seven hours of bizarre questioning from investigators

Picasso Moin said in his Instagram post today that he and his wife were summoned to one of the houses of the Ministry of Intelligence 10 months ago at the Valiasr junction in Tehran. There, they submitted to and answered a string of bizarre questions from officials in separate interrogations that lasted about seven hours each.

"We were charged,” Moin told his followers, “but we denied it. They said we had taken steps against God, religion, government, and humanity, that were clear to them. All they wanted to know was if we had done it intentionally, or if we had made a mistake, or if we were infiltrators of America and Israel and were spying."

By the end of the interrogation, he said, the intelligence agents determined that they were not spies - but they were “aberrant”. "They said there were two options: either go to jail – it meant nothing to them that we had a child – or co-operate and stop writing posts,” he said.

“They wanted us to make a commitment and sign it right there. We made a commitment. They wanted me not to write critical societal posts anymore and not to post an unveiled photo of my wife. I told them we were only unveiled in our house and never posted a picture of unveiled people on the street. They said private photos cannot be published on virtual networks. I said that was stupid. They said it was right for them and stupid for us.

“They were very sensitive about some of the photos in particular, such as the one where my mother, veiled, was stood next to my wife, unveiled. They said we were trying to show that anyone could live their life with any kind of belief system, but we don't accept that. They said they did not “match” each other. They wanted me not to name my father anymore, and not post pictures of him."

"I was told I was illiterate, and asked was I a politician to comment on social or political issues?" says Picasso Moin. "I told them, we are citizens. How come our activity was welcome during Rouhani's elections? We voted for him because we thought his reforms would change everything. Now, as the President has not kept his promise and we are critical, do we become illiterate citizens?"

After the seven-hour interrogation and their signing the undertaking, officials wiped almost 1,000 photos from Picasso Moin’s Instagram account. All the photos of his wife were removed. Following the incident Moin said he was at pains to be “cautious” and did not post any more videos – and did not disclose details of the encounter online or elsewhere. “They said don’t tell anyone,” he said, “and we didn’t.”

But despite their compliance, the couple were summoned back to the Ministry of Intelligence again and asked by agents to remove yet more posts. Sometime later, they received an official summons to Evin Prison Court and were detained for hours before being released on bail. Their case, they were told, had been transferred to Branch 26 of the Revolutionary Court.

"After that, we were sure that we would not face a normal court and that we would be imprisoned. We thought they were going to do something to us to scare others. We hadn’t done anything and hadn’t committed a crime. I have a wife and two children. With them here, I will not go to prison for even a day. So without telling anyone, one night we left our stuff behind and left the country."


A Growing Obsession

Detentions, threats and public humiliations of influencers by Iranian security and law enforcement officials have become a regular occurrence in recent years. In July 2018, a 17-year-old girl named Maedeh Hojabri was arrested for publishing videos of herself dancing. The teenager was forced to confess on national television, sat in front of her interrogators’ video cameras. Crying, she said: "I didn't really mean what you are saying I did."

As part of the same broadcast, a documentary called The Astray, three other teenagers were also asked about their activities on Instagram. All three expressed remorse for having ever published their own photos and videos, in trembling voices and with ashen faces.

It followed an incident some years before in which a group of young people who had reproduced the music video to Pharrell Williams’ song Happy were arrested and forced to confess on television. Reyhaneh Taravati, one of the young dancers, took to Twitter to write a spirited defense of Maeda Hojabari: "You arrested me at the age of 23 for the crime of being happy, and Maeda at the age of 18 for the same ridiculous crime! What will you do with the next generation?"

On January 31 last year, Iranian prosecutor general Mohammad Javad Montazeri tried to justify the abuse by saying: "The sanitization of cyberspace and filtering will prevent young people from being drawn to the slaughterhouse."

The Secretary of the Supreme Council of Cyberspace, Abolhassan Firoozabadi, has since made repeated reference to nationwide “Cyberspace Sanitizing Plan”. "We need a content production movement to make cyberspace healthier," Firoozabadi has said. "Many users are at risk of slipping due to the lack of appropriate and healthy content, in the words of the Supreme Leader."

After the prosecutor general’s remarks in January 2019, many female influencers abruptly deleted their unveiled photos and continued to operate in cyberspace with full hijab. The phrase "abiding by the laws of the Islamic Republic" was added to their bios. At the same time, there were reports that others, too, had been summoned and faced the threat of their Instagram pages being closed.

For their part, Picasso Moin and Shabnam Shahrokhi are planning to appeal their convictions through their lawyer.

"We came to understand that they were playing with our lives," Moin says. "We are still wondering what we did to deserve this treatment. Does criticism mean anti-regime propaganda? Are sports activities obscene?"



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