Civil Liberties

Tyranny Goes Global

Iran sets a dangerous precedent by jailing Canadian blogger Hossein Derakhshan.


The plight of Iranian "blogfather" Hossein Derakhshan, known by his online handle Hoder, is a chilling reminder that there are still places where the exercise of one's freedom of expression could be a capital offense. According to officials in Iran, Canada is one of those places.

Derakhshan, an Iranian-born Canadian citizen, has been in prison in Iran for the past 22 months, after being arrested shortly after returning to his country of birth under suspicious circumstances in 2008. Late last month, it was reported that Derakhshan had been sentenced to 19 years in prison. One activist who wished to remain anonymous told me that this is the longest prison sentence given in Iran for a speech-crime since the post-election crackdown that began in June 2009. But the sentence is still a victory of sorts: There were credible rumors that prosecutors had been pushing for the death penalty. 

No one knows why Derakhshan went back to Iran, but it's been credibly suggested that he was offered a job with Press TV, Iran's government-owned satellite news network. If this is true, then it's possible that some faction of the Iranian government played a role in convincing him to return to the country. Nir Boms of speculated that the government lured Derakhshan back to Iran in order to pump him for infomation about the Iranian opposition's web network. "If you are a known political activist and someone who holds the key to many of the opposition blogs, who know some passwords to many of their websites, you are an asset to the regime, no doubt," says Boms. Boms added that there's some proof that the Iranian government promised not to hassle or arrest Derakhshan if he returned to the country, further suggesting an effort by regime hardliners to entrap one of the world's most important Persian-language bloggers. "It seemed before he returned he received some assurances from Iran that nothing bad would happen to him," he says. "The Council for Iranians Abroad seem to have given him indication that he wouldn't have problems with the government."

Like many who have run afoul of the Iranian regime, Hoder was charged under the broad rubric of "crimes against the state," which in this case means "anti-state propaganda" and "insulting the prophet and his descendants." Although Hoder became controversial for his increasingly pro-regime opinions—leading to speculation that he had been bought off or otherwise co-opted by the government in Tehran—he is now facing several decades in prison.

Hoder is paying for his blogging activities with his freedom, but his career is an object lesson in how technology can bring some limited degree of political liberty to societies living under oppressive governments. His publication of easy-to-follow instructions for blogging in Farsi helped spur an explosion of blogging in Iran, which was partly responsible for the atmosphere of debate and protest that fueled the Green Revolution two summers ago. The Internet, after all, is a nationless and inherently cosmopolitan medium—whether a blog is pro- or anti-regime, it has the potential to open lines of dialogue and communication between Iranians and the outside world. This might explain why the Iranian government blocks non-political or even religiously conservative blogs, according to a 2008 Harvard study (see page 20). The regime's penchant for jailing bloggers also attests to its fear of a blog-fueled and truly democratic political culture, a fear which has manifested itself through an assault on cosmopolitan figures who could bridge the gap between an isolated theocratic state and Western standards of civil society. Mohammad Ali Abtahi, "the blogging mullah," is emblematic of the government's anti-cosmopolitanism in action. A regime insider and vice president under the conservative Mohammed Khatami, Abtahi also appeared on the Daily Show and headed a committee dedicated to inter-religious dialogue. He has been in prison since June 2009. 

The nature of Hoder's "crimes" is reflective of this paranoia towards any activity that could undermine the Islamist and pathologically anti-Western foundation of the Iranian regime, and observers have speculated that Hoder's arrest was partly triggered by a controversial reporting trip to Israel in 2006. The Iranian government's fear of globe-trotting dissidents also runs notoriously deep. Prominent Iranian scholars and journalists have been indicted in absentia, while Robert Guerra of Freedom House says that the Iranian regime's internet surveilance has been both wide-ranging and aggressive.

"There's a huge push by the Iranian government to control the message, and they will reach outside their borders to do so" says Guerra. This entails a number of invasive and sophisticated means of controlling the opposition's Web presence. Guerra says that people have been forced to give up their Facebook and Twitter passwords upon arrival at the Tehran airport. The government also keeps Internet connections in Iran extremely slow, so that they can identify or target anyone who spends suspicious amounts of time uploading pictures or video online. Anti-government exiles have to be extremely careful about how they communicate with dissidents still inside the country. "There's a great chilling effect" says Guerra of anti-regime bloggers and Web-based activists. "So people might self-censor even outside of iran, which is very troublesome as well."

Hoder is a victim of this assault on the international, Web-based nature of Iran's emerging political culture. This policy isn't surprising for a self-isolating dictatorship. But in situations like these, Western governments at least have the minimal responsibility of defending the rights of their citizens. After all, Hoder is a Canadian citizen and did most of his blogging in Toronto. In this case, the dictatorial interests of the Iranian regime are in conflict with a Western government's commitment to protecting the civil liberties of its citizens.

To Canada's credit, it cares that speech by one of its own citizens on its own soil is being treated as criminal behavior in another country. The Canadian government asked for access to the jailed blogger and attempted to extend him full consular support after he was arrested, a request which the Iranians continue to deny. But the Canadian government has given no public indication that it is negotiating for Hoder's release, and hasn't threatened to downgrade or cut off diplomatic relations if Hoder is executed. One blogger writes that,

The reason to write about Hoder and support campaigns like the Free Hoder blog is not to influence the Iranian government, but to urge the Canadian government to do whatever they can. Hoder holds a Canadian, as well as an Iranian passport, and while Iran doesn't respect dual nationality, Canada does, and has an obligation to push for Hossein's release.

Julie Payne of Canadian Journalists for Free Expression agrees. "I think the Canadian government is working behind the scenes in diplomatic channels," she says. "We'd like to hear them take a strong public stance on this issue and I think there's more that can be done. I think this needs to be a really high priority." She cited the case of Maziar Bahari, a Canadian-Iranian filmmaker and Newsweek reporter who was freed after being swept up in Iran's post-election crackdown, as an example of activists and the Canadian government successfully pressuring the Iranian regime. 

But in the 22 months that Hoder has been imprisoned, the Canadian government has shown little willingness to spark an international confrontation over the civil rights of either its citizens or Iran's beleaguered opposition. Given Canada's history of championing Iranian human rights and its success in securing Bahari's release, it's disappointing that its government has been relatively mute in defending one of the world's most high-profile Iranian-Canadians.

While the Canadians have utilized diplomatic back-channels and released a statement after the prison sentence was handed down, the Derakhshan affair was hardly the international incident that it could and arguably should have been. The Canadian government's attitude is a quiet acknowledgement of tyranny's transnational reach in the digital age, when what you write in Canada could land you on death row in Iran. Hoder's arrest, as well as the Iranian government's alleged role in luring him back to Iran, suggests that this is more than a hypothetical. The Iranian government's international campaign against its opposition is a terrifying development, and should be a call to global outrage and resolve—not a call to polite diplomacy.  

Armin Rosen is Reason's Fall 2010 Burton C. Gray Memorial Intern.