Iran Human RightsThe price paid for blogging Iran

The price paid for blogging Iran

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BBC: Iran is becoming an increasingly dangerous place to keep an online diary. Web logs have become a popular forum for dissent. And the Iranian government has responded by arresting dozens of bloggers. Some of those detained are reportedly being held in solitary confinement and tortured. BBC

By Clark Boyd
Technology correspondent

Iran is becoming an increasingly dangerous place to keep an online diary.

Web logs have become a popular forum for dissent. And the Iranian government has responded by arresting dozens of bloggers.

Some of those detained are reportedly being held in solitary confinement and tortured.

Bloggers Arash Sigarchi and Mojtaba Saminejad are both currently in prison in Iran.

Mr Sigarchi has been in detention since 17 January while Mr Saminejad was first detained in November.

“Freedom of expression is really at stake at the moment,” says Julien Pain, who runs the Internet Freedom Desk at the Paris based group Reporters without Borders.

“The Iranian authorities have been clamping down on regular media for a long time, but it’s only in the last six months that they’re harshly attacking cyber-dissidents and webloggers. It’s really a serious situation.”

Detention criticised

The Iranian government has not said explicitly that it is blogging that got Mr Sigarchi and Mr Saminejad into trouble.

However, both have used their blogs in the past to criticise the detention of other Iranian webloggers.

Iranian-born Hadi Ghaemi is following both cases for Human Rights Watch in New York.

“Major charges against Sigarchi included him giving interview to foreign radio, which is completely a violation of his right to free speech and expression,” Mr Ghaemi says.

“He’s being kept in a prison in the city of Rasht, which is his hometown in northern Iran. Bail for his release has been set at $200,000.”

Mojtaba Saminejad has not fared much better, according to Mr Ghaemi.

“Saminejad was kept in solitary confinement for 88 days, and he was subjected to severe beatings and torture. He was briefly released on 27 January for a short time, but because bail had been set at $125,000, and he wasn’t able to pay that, he was rearrested, and his conditions are unknown.”

Wave of arrests

Mr Sigarchi and Mr Saminejad are only the latest cases in a wave of arrests that has meant jail for at least two dozen Iranian bloggers.

It is part and parcel of a broader crackdown on Iranian media that began in 2000.

When regular print outlets were censored, many Iranians turned to weblogging. In fact, weblogs have become a key form of communication in Iran.

It is estimated that there are some 46,000 bloggers in the country.

Sina Motallebi used to be one of them.

In 2001, Mr Motallebi was working as a columnist for a Tehran newspaper.

But the government began censoring his work, and so Mr Motallebi started a Farsi-language blog called Diaries of a Websurfer.

“I felt free and uncensored in my weblog,” he says.

Political prisoner

That freedom, however, did not last. Iran’s judiciary became concerned after Mr Motallebi posted an entry critical of the Iranian government’s treatment of a well-known political prisoner.

Mr Motallebi was first summoned to court in the fall of 2001. Over the next year and half, he was summoned four more times.

The last time, in April of 2003, Mr Motallebi was arrested and thrown in jail.

“I spent 22 days in solitary confinement, and I was interrogated,” he says. “I was under very, very severe psychological torture. Still, the effect of torture remains on my soul.”

Mr Motallebi was released after a family friend posted $60,000 bail.

He managed to get a passport, and immediately fled to the Netherlands, where he sought and got asylum.

He is now working for the BBC’s Persian Service in London.

He is not blogging now, but he remains concerned about the crackdown on bloggers in Iran.

“When they arrest ordinary webloggers, youngsters, people only 20 years old, everybody thinks, ‘OK this could happen to me also’,” he says.

“If you don’t react to that, and show the Iranians that this could cost them in international relations, they could keep on doing that, and arrest all the people who wrote a single post criticizing the Islamic regime.”

Human rights groups and bloggers are trying to help.

Reporters without Borders is trying to pressure Iranian officials to release all detained bloggers and cyber-dissidents.

The Association of Iranian Blogwriters, called Penlog, is demanding that the Iranian judiciary either formally charge Mojtaba Saminejad, or release him immediately.

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