The Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei’s new calls to further tighten internet restrictions signals a new phase in digital repression in Iran. In the wake of this renewed attack on rights and freedoms, ARTICLE 19 calls on all Iranian state institutions to align their policies with international standards of human rights, and particularly freedom of expression online.
Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has formally called on the judiciary to purge dissenting voices from online spaces. This marks a particularly significant turn for an already heavily controlled and restricted internet policy in the Islamic Republic, as the Supreme Leader is the ultimate arbiter of the direction of policy and repression.
Addressing the country’s top judicial officials during a meeting on 27 June 2023, Khamenei highlighted that the Islamic Republic’s constitution puts the judiciary in charge of ‘preserving public rights’, which he said includes preserving the ‘psychological security of the society’. He reprimanded the judiciary for its lack of ‘planning and discipline’ in handling crimes related to undermining this right, demanding immediate action and intervention. The 83-year-old demanded this ‘legal void’ to be immediately addressed.
Khamenei’s disappointment in the ‘lack’ of control comes despite the already alarming deterioration of online spaces. ARTICLE 19 has previously documented the draconian User Protection Bill’s dangers to rights online. We have tracked how, despite the lack of political will for parliament to pass this Bill, the rights-eroding aspects of this Bill are being quietly implemented and have defined much of the new strategies to control, disrupt and censor the internet during the uprising in response to the death of Mahsa Jhina Amini.
Dark record of violations
This is not the first time that Khamenei has spoken of the ‘dangers’ of cyberspace. However, the comments come at a critical point, and are addressed to people who have authority to curb online freedoms in practice.
It comes as no surprise that Khamenei is calling for further tightening of the net, and especially in a meeting with judiciary officials. Khamenei appoints the judiciary chief and has an ironclad grip over thise branch of power.
Over 9 months have passed since people in Iran rose up against the clerical establishment. The popular uprising was triggered by the death in police custody of Mahsa Jhina Amini, a young Kurdish ethnic woman arrested over allegedly ‘violating’ mandatory hijab rules.
Authorities have unleashed brute force against protesters, killing hundreds, and arresting thousands, and later sentencing many of them to jail, exile, and death.
Since his ascent to power, Khamenei has relied on judges – especially at revolutionary and media courts – to crush all forms of dissent. As recently as November 2022 and early into the current uprising, he mobilised the judiciary against protesters.
‘Burn the festering wound,’ Khamenei instructed in his last meeting with judiciary officials on 29 November 2022, amounting to a direct order to judges. This immediately translated into execution sentences for numerous protesters. The regime has already executed at least 7 people in relation to their role in protests, all enacted following the November order. Dozens more have been sentenced to death or charged with capital offences. At the same time executions for ‘crimes’ not related to protests have surged sharply.
As part of their efforts tofor controlling the uprising, the regime has curbed internet speed, clamped down on censorship circumvention tools, and rolled out schemes that provide regime supporters with increased access to the internet, which they use to justify regime’s policies online. Furthermore, the regime has arrested close to 100 journalists and threatened others.
Khamenei’s remarks and speeches have long been used to set the direction of internet policy in Iran, including his calls to create the Supreme Council of Cyberspace in 2012 to lead internet policy within his vision.
ARTICLE 19 has outlined recent proposed legal provisions developed in direct response to recent protests, defiance of discriminatory, humiliating and degrading compulsory veiling laws, and expressions online and offline that have engulfed the country over the past years.
This, in conjunction with the role the judiciary has played in convicting protesters of disproportionate and criminal charges such as moharabeh (‘enmity with God’ in Iran’s Islamic Penal Code), that have resulted in several executions, has already garnered the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran to conclude the authorities have possibly committed crimes against humanity.
Instead of bringing the laws in line with the Islamic Republic’s international human rights obligations to guarantee human rights and ensure accountability, the authorities are adopting legislation that further facilitate repression, including through judicial prosecutions of and issuing harsh sentences against protesters, human rights defenders and others speaking out about human rights violations, and women and girls who oppose discriminatory and degrading compulsory veiling.
Online rights and other fundamental freedoms go hand in hand. The international community, including the United Nations human rights monitoring mechanisms, together with states, must consider these developments in any interactions with Iranian authorities. Technology companies must also consider the exacerbating dangers to people who use their services – both when accessing these services as well as when they are persecuted for using their services under these aggressive moves against freedoms online.