Arrested: Reformist Journalist, Serajedin Mirdamadi
The Arrest, Retweet and Silence
Continuing on the paradoxical patterns in Iran, I present you with an interesting twitter thread from this week:
On 11 May 2014 Negar Mortazavi, a Washington based journalist tweeted:
— Negar Mortazavi نگار (@NegarMortazavi)
Journalists, political activist, campaigners and the like often tweet and address Iranian politicians on this platform regarding human rights abuses or current developments, but they seldom receive a response. However, President Hassan Rouhani made a unique gesture on this occasion and retweeted Negar’s above tweet two hours after. It is fair to say that those following Iran-related tweets were dumbfounded. Not only had he retweeted Negar Mortazavi who is a leading voice amongst reporters on Iran –US relations, often calling out Iran on its human rights violations, but it is also a day after news broke about the arrest of reformist journalist Serajedin Mirdamadi (whose arrest had prompted Negar’s tweet). Mirdamadi, a reformist political activist, had resided in France for some years with his wife and son; however after the victory of President Hassan Rouhani he had returned to Iran. His return is believed to be influenced by Rouhani’s extended hand towards émigrés. After winning the presidential election in 2013, pledging to ease his country’s isolation and grant Iranians more freedoms, he promised to facilitate the safe return of Iranian expatriates. Yet, upon Mirdamadi’s return he was questioned and summoned to court where he stood accused of spreading lies against the government, but was later freed on bail. During this period, Mirdamadi was barred from leaving Iran and remained under investigation. His attorney, Giti Pourfazel, informed the news that Midamadi’s journalistic work was used as evidence against him.
On Saturday 10 May 2014 IRNA quoted the journalist’s attorney as saying that Mirdamadi was taken into temporary detention on security charges including ‘propaganda against the State’ and ‘conspiracy’. As a prominent journalist and a commentator on Iranian law and politics, Mirdamadi had often called for a revision of the Iranian constitution and legislation. He also campaigned for the opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi in the 2009 election and worked for currently banned newspapers such as Jahan-e Eslam and Toos, Hayat-e No. Although the details of the case are unclear, we are again witnessing the arrest of Iranian journalists under unfounded charges tailored to limit legitimate forms of expression.
The Iranian government has repeatedly detained journalists on similar charges following the 2009 re-election of former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad which reformists and opposition figures consider fraudulent. Iran has a turbulent track record of arresting journalists under such vague charges, with numbers of journalists detained in Iran increasing since the 2009 election. On World Press Day (30 April 2014) the International Federation of Journalist (IFJ) called on this issue in an open letter to Rouhani, requesting the reopening of the IFJ offices in Iran and action to be taken to secure freedom of expression in Iran:
“Journalists across the globe have been horrified by the judicial process that put these journalists in jail and the abusive treatment they are facing in prison.
Since your election last year, we have welcomed every statement you have made about press freedom in Iran and the role and responsibility of journalists in upholding the right of Iranian citizens to receive reliable and trustworthy information. However, for these powerful statements to have an enduring impact, it is crucial that your government now takes these positive and enduring actions that will convey its commitment to freedom of speech and media freedom.”
Of course this open letter was given no official response.
It is also interesting to read into the connotations of Rouhani’s retweet in the context of his previous moves in encouraging expats to return to Iran. Earlier in the year Iran established a secretariat for the Committee for the Return of Expat Iranians, inside Iran’s Intelligence Ministry. In November 2013, Iranian Expatriate Affairs Hassan Qashqavi had announced the creation of a committee to facilitate the return of expats, which includes political activist, to return to their home country: “The reason many Iranians do not return to Iran is the [fear] induced by Iranian opposition groups abroad. In my opinion, many of these fears are self-made. This fear has no root.” Qashqavi said. Although, this was balanced with a caveat by Iran’s Intelligence Minister Mahmoud Alavi who added: “We guarantee that any individual who has not committed a violation will not have a problem,” continuing, “We will resolve the unfounded fear of those who did not commit any crimes during the 2009 events.” We are by now all too aware of the arbitrary definition of “crime” within Iranian jurisprudence which highlights the vague boundaries of this invite. Nevertheless, this retweet by Rouhani could be an indication that he did not agree with the arrest of Mirdamadi, standing by his proposal for to facilitate the safe return of Iranian expats. We would like to encourage a response from Rouhani on the matter and urge to the immediate release of Serajedin Mirdamadi whose only crime has been the legitimate exercise of his rights to expression.
It is important to note that under Iranian law and the separation of powers Rouhani does not have control of the Judiciary or the security apparatus. Further, when looking at the question of internet freedom, the president would need to manoeuvre around the 22-man Supreme Council for Cyberspace, which is dominated by conservatives. An interesting issue is however raised by Majid Rafizadeh who stresses that in practice there is no clear separation of powers between Iran’s judiciary, executive and legislative branches. He rightly asks that even if we were to accept that Rouhani had no influence over the Judiciary and the security apparatus “Why did he make promises knowing that he would not be capable of delivering?” He goes on the note “In fact, these governmental branches are closely interconnected and people across the political spectrum, such as the head of Iran’s Judiciary Human Rights Council Mohammad Javad Larijani, Chairman of the Parliament Ali Larijani, or Rouhani do not ideologically or politically disagree on human rights issues and the matter of executions.” To an outsider statements and actions taken by Rouhani in recent months in regards to human rights issues have been perplexing, with supporters of Rouhani arguing that this is his stance against hard-liners, and sceptics seeing it as nothing more that empty blandishments. Nonetheless, Rouhani’s more active presence on Twitter does demonstrate that his more open beliefs on Internet freedom and censorship than his predecessor.
Rouhani’s interests in encouraging expats to return also have their economic value: it has been noted by Iranian Minister of Science and Technology Reza Faraji Dana “(e)very year, about 150,000 of our elite emigrate from Iran, costing our economy $150 billion,” Naturally emigration includes large numbers of the highly educated journalists, writers and other proponents of the word; according to the International Monetary Fund, Iran has the highest rate of brain drain in the world. Due to this the Rouhani administration has been keen to encourage the return of these expats. So to foster confidence in the proposal, Qashqavi even provided an email address where Iranians could write to inquire about their travel permission status from the Foreign Ministry – an interesting gesture that was taken-up by a number of Iranians. The Iranian Foreign Ministry has recently tweeted that they have forwarded about 40 of these inquiries to the Judiciary, but they are yet to receive a reply. To counter this and create more confusion for expats hoping to return to Iran, the Foreign Ministry reported in February that about 5 percent of Iranian expatriates will be arrested for crimes upon their arrival at Iranian airports. So we can all appreciate that the confusion created for those hoping to return. Most Iranian activists, journalists and other figures whose names are known to the Iranian government refrain from going to Iran knowing their chances of arrest are high.
We are again faced with empty gestures by Rouhani that not only fail to deliver, but also could put those who believe his statements in a honeytrap-type situation, as seen in the case of Serajedin Mirdamadi. Many see Rouhani as a vision of hope in Iran (whilst others are far from convinced); he will need to move away from token gestures in regards to human rights – especially on social media platforms banned in Iran – and provide assurances that human rights will become the priority. The fate of journalist and activists such as Mirdamadi may well rest in his hands.
Image source: http://www.radiozamaneh.com/110462
 He is also not in charge of Iran’s Cyber Police, FATA, who were recently met with resistance by Bayan hosting service who refused to comply with authorities after being told to disclose private information about one of their users. They argued that they could not pass on the information due to its users’ right to privacy under Iranian law. Here they also inserted that the request could only be met if it was made through a judiciary court.