Tehran, Iran (ICHRI) – The recently announced arrests of 170 people in Qazvin Province, a number of others in Gilan Province, and five journalists in Tehran, all by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, amounts to the largest crackdown since the violent state suppression of the protests that followed the disputed 2009 presidential election in Iran.
Judiciary officials have expressed no knowledge about the arrests in Qazvin and it is not clear whether the Revolutionary Guards acted directly or with a court warrant.
“These arrests by the Revolutionary Guards are effectively abductions, not arrests,” said Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, “because the Judiciary says they know nothing about at least 170 of them.”
“People are transferred to unknown locations, without oversight by the Judiciary,” continued Ghaemi, “and if the Judiciary disavows knowledge of it, that means the Guards are arresting people without judicial warrants.”
The Revolutionary Guards’ Gerdab website reported on October 16, 2015, that the Guards’ cyber unit in Qazvin Province had 170 “managers of groups active in mobile social networks” arrested. (Agents of the Revolutionary Guards’ Intelligence Organization carry out the actual arrests.)
Their announcement, which was also carried by the Fars news agencies, both of which are close to the Revolutionary Guards, claimed that those who were arrested were acting “against moral security” and distributing “indecent and immoral” content in the form of text and images that “encouraged people to commit obscene acts” and “insult ethnic minorities, officials and distinguished national figures.”
While the report said that a number of the 170 people arrested in Qazvin were handed over to the “relevant authorities” for judicial processing, Judiciary Spokesman Gholamhossein Mohseni Ejeidenied the arrests the following day. “We asked the Judiciary officials in Qazvin and found out that the recent report regarding the arrest of people involved in immoral websites is untrue,” Ejei said.
Meanwhile five journalists were also arrested by the Revolutionary Guards on November 2, 2015, in Tehran. They are Issa Saharkhiz, Ehsan Mazandarani, Afarin Chitsaz, Saman Safarzaie and one other person whom the Guards have not yet identified. The day after the arrests the Revolutionary Guards Intelligence Organization took responsibility for the arrests and claimed the accused were “members of an infiltration group connected to the US and UK.”
President Hassan Rouhani criticized the recent arrests, but the Revolutionary Guards defended their actions as an “organized and powerful operation” by “anonymous soldiers of Imam Zaman.” Authorities in Iran routinely refer to intelligence agents as soldiers of Imam Zaman, who was the Twelfth Shiite Imam.
Ali Shamkhani, a member of Iran’s National Security Council, said in a press conference on November 10, 2015, that the arrested journalists would be released soon. “It seems these friends [the arrested journalists] don’t have a problem. They were told that what they did was wrong and they have accepted it, although some of them said they were not aware [that they were doing anything wrong].”
No other official has made any statement regarding releasing the journalists whose whereabouts are still unknown. One of the arrested journalists, Isa Saharkhiz, was barred from writing for newspapers but had been posting reformist political views critical of the government on his Facebook page. The other three were also associated with reformist political and social writings, or, in the case of Afarin Chitsaz, published columns in the Iran newspaper, the official publication of the Rouhani administration.
In addition, an official in charge of the Revolutionary Guards cyber unit in Gilan Province told theTasnim News Agency on November 10, 2015, that a number of people involved in “inciting Azari-language speakers” had been arrested. The number of people arrested and their identities have not been revealed.
A day after the Revolutionary Guards took responsibility for the arrest of the five journalists, President Rouhani warned against the harsh treatment of critics. “We mustn’t pick one or two people from here and there on excuses, in order to fabricate a case for them, and then exaggerate this case in the country and say this line is the “line of infiltration,” Rouhani said.
Member of Parliament Ali Motahari also criticized the arrests: “Why were the recent arrests carried out by the Revolutionary Guards Intelligence Organization? Don’t we have an Intelligence Ministry? The Guards say they will do whatever they want,” he said.
These arrests by the Revolutionary Guards are part and parcel of a broader crackdown by hardliners in Iran that has gathered steam ever since the Rouhani administration reached a nuclear deal with world powers. Numerous journalists, peaceful activists, reformists, and cultural figures have been arrested, prosecuted, and sentenced to lengthy prison terms.
“The Revolutionary Guards, backed by Ayatollah Khamenei, are acting outside the boundaries of Iran’s own laws to sow fear and stamp out independent voices,” said Ghaemi. “They are desperate to maintain their control over the domestic sphere, in a context dramatically changed by the nuclear deal, and their increasingly lawless behavior to achieve this bodes poorly for the future of basic civil rights and liberties in Iran.”
This report prepared by International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran.