​​Iran: Hossein Shanbehzadeh targeted as social media crackdown continues

​​Iran: Hossein Shanbehzadeh targeted as social media crackdown continues - Digital

ARTICLE 19 calls for the immediate release of former literary editor and online activist Hossein Shanbehzadeh, who was arrested by Islamic Republic of Iran intelligence forces on Tuesday, 4 June 2024 while he was in Ardabil, northwestern Iran. Iranian authorities accuse Shanbehzadeh of ‘espionage’ and ‘insulting sanctities’ in connection with posts on Facebook and X. In addition to calling for his release, we call on authorities to grant Shanbehzadeh a fair trial and access to a lawyer of his choice. 

‘The charges brought by the prosecutor’s office in Ardabil not only target Hossein Shanbehzadeh, they represent the government’s broader efforts to extend internet censorship and further suppress the use of social media in Iran,’ said Mahsa Alimardani, Senior Programme Officer at ARTICLE 19. ‘This is part of renewed crackdowns amid what Iranian officials have described as a “sensitive time” following the death of President Ebrahim Raisi and an upcoming presidential election.’  

During his incarceration, authorities have kept Hossein Shanbehzadeh, 35, in solitary confinement and tortured him in an attempt to force him to ‘confess’ to the fabricated charges brought against him. Judiciary officials and intelligence agents routinely use such tactics against civil and political activists, including activists who campaign on social media, as well as against journalists and women’s rights activists.

Shanbehzadeh’s family has responded publicly, issuing two statements refuting the claims against him. ‘We are primarily concerned about Hossein’s health as we are unaware of the arresting authority and his detention location,’ they stated, adding that, as a prisoner, he is entitled to basic rights. ‘We do not know if he is safe or not,’ they said. 

 Many Iranians also went on to social media to protest against Hossein Shanbehzadeh’s arrest, calling the accusations against him ‘baseless’ and ‘ridiculous’.

Although state-affiliated news agencies and government officials rarely announce the arrest of civil activists, journalists, or people arrested for their posts on social media, the office of Jalal Afaqi, the Ardabil prosecutor, together with the Tasnim news agency, which is affiliated with the Revolutionary Guards, immediately confirmed Hossein Shanbehzadeh’s arrest on Wednesday, 5 June, reiterating the accusations of espionage and adding accusations that he had attempted to leave the country.

Hossein Shanbehzadeh was previously arrested in 2019. The Tehran Revolutionary Court sentenced him to a total of six years in prison. He was sentenced to three years and six months for ‘insulting sanctities’, one and a half years for ‘insulting the leader of the Islamic Republic’, and 10 months for ‘propaganda against the regime’. 

He became well known in Iran for his online activism, and his use of  humour, informal language, bold opinions and messages of protest. Before his first arrest in 2019, he was active on Twitter (now X) under the pseudonym ‘Unicorn Editor’, but after being released from prison, he posted on X using his real name.

The sentence was handed down in July 2021, and Shanbehzadeh was transferred to Evin Prison. He was released in late April 2023. Immediately after his release, Shanbehzadeh resumed his activities on social media, despite the risk of further detainment to document the details of his arrest and time in prison, including his experiences of being flogged and witness other inhuman punishments against his fellow prisoner, including of amputating hands.

ARTICLE 19 notes that the arrest of Hossein Shanbehzadeh and the heavy charges brought against him came just weeks after the announcement of a death sentence being issued against Iranian rapper and activist Toomaj Salehi, sparking fears that a similar heavy sentence could be brought against Shanbehzadeh.

We urge the Iranian authorities to release Shanbehzadeh with immediate effect.