DAVID HAYES - Iran’s hidden prisoners

Those arrested in Iran after the presidential election of June 2009 join the detainees from earlier moments of repression. The blogger and openDemocracy author Hossein Derakhshan is one of the latter. The anniversary of his incarceration is being marked by efforts to publicise his case

The wave of arrests in Iran that followed the presidential election of 12 June 2009 means that many more Iranians are now experiencing the brutal treatment already endured by thousands of their fellow citizens. For the repressive response to the civic uprising that followed the shocking declaration of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's landslide victory has many precedents in the thirty-year history of the Islamic Republic of Iran (as of its imperial predecessor).
The capacity of the Iranian regime to render its prisoners invisible and voiceless is one of its most potent weapons. In turn, the dissemination of reliable information on individual cases is a hugely valuable resource for those on the outside - the families, colleagues and friends of those incarcerated, and the justice and human-rights groups working to make Iran a state of law. Iranian citizens with western connections can often be among the most vulnerable to sudden detention, usually in times of internal political crisis and/or tension between Iran and the west (especially the United States). For example, Iranians who have dual citizenship or who work for foreign broadcasters or think-tanks have been a favoured target. At the same time, such connections also mean an opportunity to organise publicity about their fate and campaign for their freedom (see Reza Fiyouzat, "Saberi is free: How about all the others?", OnlineJournal, 12 May 2009).
This has in recent times been the experience of, for example, the scholar Haleh Esfandiari; the journalist Parnaz Azima; the journalist Roxana Saberi; the businessman and peace activist Ali Shakeri; the diplomatic aide Hossein Rassam; & the Newsweek journalist Maziar Bahari. The current haul of detainees includes the scholarKian Tajbakhsh, whose case is an instructive example of the psychology animating Iran's hardline core (see Karim Sadjadpour, "The New Hostage Crisis", Foreign Policy, 23 October 2009).
The pioneering blogger Hossein Derakhshan, who was arrested in Tehran on 2 November 2008, also belongs to this melancholy pattern; though, as do all the above examples, his case has its unique and individual characteristics.
A singular journey: Hossein Derakhshan (widely known as "Hoder") earned a place in internet as well as Iranian history when - by combining Unicode with Blogger.com's tools to enable Persian characters - he created the first Persian-language blog in Canada in September 2001. He had moved there from Iran in 2000 after writing about technology and the internet for two newspapers: Asr-e Azadegan, and Hatay-e No(for which he wrote a column, Panjere-i roo be hayaat [A Window to the Yard]).
His early blog soon gained a large following; at its high-point, and until Iran's cyberpolice was able in 2004 to jam it, it received 35,000 page-views per day.Editor: Myself was in time supplemented by an English-language version, allowing him to reach an audience eager for insight about Iran via a new medium of exciting potential. Hoder's writing extended to other media, including (in 2004-06) five articles foropenDemocracy. He became involved in Stop Censoring Us, a record of internet censorship in Iran. He made two visits to Israel in 2006-07, and in 2007 registered for a master's degree at London's School of Oriental and African Studies (Soas).
Hoder returned to Iran in October 2008, and reputedly was positive about his early experiences there. The news of his arrest on 2 November could not be confirmed for several weeks; but on 30 December 2008, a week before Hoder's 34th birthday, Ali Reza Jamshidi - spokesman of the revolutionary court, which oversees cases related to national security - announced at a news conference in Tehran that he was being charged with "insulting religious figures".
The accusation, a variant of the familiar range of post-facto off-the-shelf charges in the authoritarian's litany, was not supported by any known evidence; and almost a year on, there is no sign that any progress in actually examining it or bringing it to court has been made. Instead, Hoder is confined in Tehran's Evin prison - a place almost always qualified by the term "notorious" - from where only the most meagre reports of what he is going through have emerged.
The respected collective known as Human Rights Activists in Iran (HRA) published a brief account of Hoder's incarceration on 17 October 2009. It says:
"HRA has received reports which suggest that the blogger, Hossein Derakhshan, who was arrested on 2 November 2008, has spent the first eight months of his detention in solitary confinement and different wards of the Evin prison upon his return to Iran. During that time he has been subjected to various physical and psychological pressure tactics and multiple transfers.
He has been beaten repeatedly and has been forced to do squats in cold showers. His interrogators have threatened to arrest his father and his sister unless he confessed to espionage charges.
With the start of the massive arrests after the presidential election, and as a result of cell shortages in Evin prison, Derakhshan was transferred to Ward 2A of the IRGC [Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps] prison, where he shared his cell with newly arrested people.
Derakhshan has been given false promises of his release on multiple occasions: during theFajr celebrations and Nowrooz. Despite all the promises he is still being held on a temporary detention-order. His detention-order has been renewed several times, the last of which expired on 10 October 2009. Derakhshan reportedly intended to start a hunger-strike if his situation remained unchanged after this date. HRA has no information as to whether he has started the hunger-strike.
During his detention, Derakhshan has been pressured by his interrogators to collaborate and confess to the charges brought up against him. In September 2009 he was taken to court to sign documents granting permission to his lawyer to represent him. He told the judge that all his confessions had come under pressure. According to the reports received by HRA, Derakhshan had agreed to televised confessions under pressure, but the matter was cancelled after one recording.".. read more:
"Ramin Jahanbegloo: the courage to change" (3 September 2006)

Hossein Derakhshan's articles:

"Censor this: Iran's web of lies" (22 January 2004)

"Wiki-ocracy" (2 August 2005)

"Blogging Iran's wired election" (11 May 2005)

"Iran's young reformers" (4 July 2005)

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