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Features

Weekly Review of Censorship: Punishment for Letters and Videos

October 26, 2020
Niloufar Rostami
6 min read
Weekly Review of Censorship: Punishment for Letters and Videos

Between October 18 and October 25, authorities added further charges to two ongoing freedom of expression cases in Iran and issued heavy prison sentences on a third case. The new measures appear to be another crackdown against journalists and activists, and particularly against people who go public with details of how they have been treated while incarcerated.

On October 18, the news channel Emtedad announced a new charge against Niloufar Bayani, a defendant in the well-known case against environmental activists that began in early 2018. The new charge was added to Bayani’s case file after she wrote a letter to the Iranian leader while she was in prison.

Parisa Rafiei, an activist studying photography at the University of Tehran who is being held in Evin Prison, has been tried on a charge of "propaganda against the regime" for writing about her solitary confinement and being forced to undergo a virginity test.

Long prison sentences were handed down to eight people who produced and posted a video on one of Iran's most popular platforms.

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Charged with Spreading Lies for Revealing Torture

The Emtedad news channel reported on October 18 that Niloufar Bayani, a defendant in a high-profile case against  environmental activists, had been given an additional charge: ”spreading lies." According to reports and information emerging from Evin Prison, Bayani was transferred to the prison’s court to be informed of the new charge.

Niloufar Bayani has been in Evin Prison since January 24, 2018. She is one of eight environmental activists who were arrested by agents from the Revolutionary Guards intelligence unit and sentenced to 10 years in prison on charges of espionage. She is currently being held in the women's ward at Evin Prison, along with another defendant in the case, Sepideh Kashani.

Before entering the second session of her trial in February 2019, Bayani stated that she had been repeatedly tortured mentally and physically by Guards’ agents. She shouted in court: "If you, like me, were threatened with injections, you would confess! They have been holding me in solitary confinement for several months. I was beaten and forced to confess. They are taking me to Salavati to be executed."

Following this incident, Niloufar Bayani wrote a letter to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on February 11, revealing the behavior of the Revolutionary Guards interrogators and asking him for justice — a plea that led authorities to add an extra charge of "spreading lies" to her case.

Bayani wrote in her letter that she had been subjected to the most severe psychological torture and even sexual threats during at least 1,200 hours of interrogation. Bayani,  who was sentenced to 10 years in prison, stated in her letter that she was taken "to a private villa in Lavasan with seven armed men.” Despite refusing, she was forced to watch what she described as “immoral and un-Islamic behavior” that took place in a swimming pool at the house.

Her letter was first published by BBC Persian on its website. Now Bayani has been charged with spreading lies for exposing the truth about her solitary confinement and interrogation.

Since 2009, many prisoners, including Abdolah Nouri, Abolfazl Ghadyani and Mohammad Nourizad, have written letters to the Iranian leader about their torture in prison, all of which have been met with silence from the leader.

One of the environmental activists arrested in February 2018 was Kavous Seyed-Emami, director of the Parsian Heritage Wildlife Institute. He died in his cell a few days after his arrest, with judicial officials claiming it was suicide. The seven others in the case were each sentenced to between four and 10 years in prison on various charges allegedly related to national security. None of them have been entitled to even one day of temporary leave from prison since their arrest, despite a period of restricted freedom being standard procedure for most prisoners.

 

Charged With Propaganda Against the Regime After Talking About her Ordeal

Student activist Parisa Rafiei was tried at Branch 26 of the Revolutionary Court of Tehran on October 11 for a new case against her. She has been accused of "propaganda against the regime" for a letter she wrote in May 2019, stating what happened to her in solitary confinement and forcing her to take a virginity test.

Rafiei, who is currently being held in Evin Prison, was transferred to court to hear the new charge.

Rafiei wrote in her letter that she had been held in solitary confinement for 21 days and that her interrogator had forced her to have a virginity test as a means of harassment and to dishonor her. Rafiei refused to have the test. She wrote that prison authorities did not even allow her to file a complaint about this humiliating behavior.

Parisa Rafiei was arrested by security forces on February 25, 2018 for participating in student protests and sentenced to seven years in prison and 74 lashes at Branch 28 of the Revolutionary Court on charges of "gathering and conspiracy against national security," "propaganda against the regime," and "disturbing public order." The sentence was eventually reduced to one year in prison with an amnesty order. She was transferred to Evin Prison in July 2020 to serve her one-year prison sentence.

 

89 Years in Prison for Making a Video

On October 25, Hamshahri Online reported that prison sentences totaling 89 years had been handed down to people who had produced a video published on the Aparat website. The video, which was made public in 2019, asked children to talk about what they knew about how they were born. Mohammad Javad Shakouri-Moghaddam, the director and administrator of the website, was handed down a sentence of 12 years in prison, and seven other people involved with the making of the video were handed down 11-year prison sentences. Branch 26 of the Revolutionary Court charged them to 10 years in prison for "encouraging corruption" and one year on charges of "publishing vulgar content.”

Apart from Shakouri-Moghaddam, the names of the defendants have not been disclosed. According to Hamshahri Online, Shakouri-Moghaddam, who is also the founder of the Filimo and the Saba Vision sites, appeared before Judge Mohammad Moghiseh at Branch 28 of the Revolutionary Court, and issued the sentence of 12 years in prison on three separate charges: 10 years for "encouraging corruption,” one year for  "propaganda against the regime" and another year for "publishing vulgar content." Moghiseh is well known for issuing harsh sentences against journalists and activists.

The 2019 video posted on the Aparat site shows a female presenter asking street children if they know how they were born. The video was removed from the site an hour after it aired, and Iran’s hardline media labeled it immoral, and said it promoted corruption and contained ”counter-revolutionary elements.”

Shakouri-Moghaddam was originally released on bail, but a year on, the heavy sentences have now been issued.

The public relations department for Aparat issued a statement on October 25 that it will challenge the verdict, based on Article 23 of the Cybercrime Law and the guidelines set out by the Supreme Council for Cyberspace.

Following this news, the website Iran IT reported that the rulings "has caused concern for many similar platforms” because it could mean that websites could face punishment for illegal content posted by someone that the site’s administrator is not aware of. “The platform could be held accountable and it could be blocked."

Aparat was launched in February 2011 at a time when many international video sharing services in Iran were blocked. In January 2013, the number of daily views for Aparat videos exceeded a million; some reports say today it is the second most-visited website in Iran after Google.

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The new charges and sentences against journalists and activists happened over a period of just one week. It is clear that Iranian authorities are doing their best to ensure Iranians stay silent, whether it is about the environment, aspects of society, or about what prisoners endure while in detention.

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