Facebook Activist Details How She Received a Seven-Year Prison Sentence in Iran

Cartoon by Tooka Neyastani shows imprisoned women's rights activist Bahareh Hedayat behind bars. Image from International Campaign for Human Rights.

Cartoon by Tooka Neyastani shows imprisoned women's rights activist Bahareh Hedayat behind bars. Image from International Campaign for Human Rights.

This post originally appeared on iranhumanrights.org and is published here in collaboration with the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran.

One of the eight Facebook activists issued to a multi-year prison sentence in 2013 for social and political commentary posted on her Facebook page has asserted that she was denied access to a lawyer during her detention, interrogated about private matters, and charged with crimes she never committed.

Naghmeh Shahsavandi Shirazi told the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran:

They did not allow me to have a lawyer until my case went to the appeals court, and even then I did not attend the trial. Our case was being presided [over] by Judge Moghisseh who has no knowledge of computers and the Internet because if he did he would never have considered cartoons of [Member of the Council of Guardians] Ali Jannati and [Supreme Leader] Ali Khamenei as pornographic…We did not have one pornographic image on our Facebook pages.

Shirazi and her co-defendants managed eight popular pages on Facebook and shared content from social media sites. On April 14, 2014, she was sentenced to seven years in prison on charges of insulting the Supreme Leader Khamenei and founder of the Islamic Republic Ayatollah Khomeini, conspiring against the state, and publishing pornographic images.

“Many of our [Facebook] pages were non-political,” Shirazi said, adding, “We have two pages which were [akin to] citizen journalism. We collected information from inside prisons and published them there. These page had about four million Likes and because of that, they accused us of undermining national security.”

She continued:

We re-posted cartoons that already existed online. We did not produce anything ourselves. We sometimes put pictures of the country’s leaders next to each other along with a caption for various occasions, such as when someone was executed. The bottom line is that we were a bunch of ‘admins’ who reported current events on our pages like citizen journalists.

She added she was incredulous at the charge of “conspiring against the state” because the type of content they posted was ubiquitous on social media networks, and the specific content they posted on Facebook had already been previously posted on social media sites in Iran.

Naghmeh Shahsavandi Shirazi. Image from ICHRI.

Naghmeh Shahsavandi Shirazi. Image from ICHRI.

According to Shirazi, she, along with the seven other Facebook activists, were identified by security agents, including one of the plaintiffs who was a member of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards’ cyber army in Shiraz. On the day of their trial, a group of Revolutionary Guardsmen were present in court as plaintiffs. “Our appeals court Judge Pourarab tried to help us but they did not allow him,” she said.

Shirazi said her interrogations consisted largely of “personal” questions about private aspects of her life, as well as those of her relatives and friends.

“The interrogator himself told me that male [suspects] were beaten [during interrogation]. Physically I was treated much better than others but the psychological pressure was a lot worse. I am a mother with two children and because of that, every day they told me things that disturbed me. They told me a lot of filthy things,” Shirazi added.

Shirazi told the Campaign that the Facebook admin accounts were created under anonymous names, but were subsequently uncovered because one of the Facebook activists responded to comments posted on their pages using separate accounts that were under their legal names. The authorities hacked into that account and then gained access to the other accounts.

“In fact, the plaintiffs had complained about the comments. One of our friends was arrested because of a comment and during the investigations they hacked into his account and realized that he’s one of the page admins,” Shirazi said.

She added that she was not aware of a variety of security precautions that could have helped her remain anonymous in her online activities. In order to bypass state-filtered websites, Shirazi purchased a Virtual Private Network (VPN), a tool that allows a user to bypass Internet filtering, on the black market in Iran. The security of such tools, particularly when purchased domestically, can never be guaranteed. Internet security experts note that in societies such as Iran, where people are prosecuted for Internet content and activities, international Internet circumvention tools (such as Tor,  or Psiphon), or private VPNs that are purchased outside the country from trusted sources, are typically safe from tracking by state security agencies.

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