Iran is world's biggest prison for journalists again

Published on 6 January 2010

The Islamic Republic of Iran has recovered its status as the world’s biggest prison for the media, with a total of 42 journalists detained following the confirmation of Ahmad Zeydabadi’s six-year sentence on appeal on 4 January and a Tehran revolutionary court’s decision the same day to sentence Bahaman Ahamadi Amoee to 34 lashes and seven years and four months in jail.

Also on 4 January, 36 parliamentarians who support President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad presented a bill under which detained government opponents would be regarded as “mohareb” (enemies of God) who should be executed “within a maximum of five days” of their arrest. It would also reduce to five days the period allowed for an appeal in cases of “disturbing public order” and “moharebeh” (war against God), instead of the 25 days currently allowed under article 236 of the criminal code.

“We are very disturbed by the calls repeatedly made by the most senior officials for Iran to impose the ‘supreme punishment’ on detainees, including journalists,” Reporters Without Borders said. “The danger is imminent. The regime hardliners are capable of having the crackdown’s witnesses executed. There is an urgent need for international bodies to take action before a tragedy takes place, before political prisoners begin being executed.”

An intelligence ministry representative said at a news conference on 4 January: “Several agents from foreign countries have been arrested with cameras and video cameras.” The ministry also released a list of 60 NGOs and news media regarded as having incited and participated in rioting.

They included the BBC (especially its Persian service), Voice of America and human rights groups such as Human Rights Watch. It is now strictly forbidden for Iranian citizens or organisations to cooperate or have any contact with the listed organisations.

Arrested on 14 June, Zeydabadi is meanwhile still being subjected to considerable pressure from intelligence ministry interrogators to publicly request a pardon from the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, for its articles critical of the government. Previously detained in 2000 and 2003, he is still being held in solitary confinement in Evin prison’s Section 2009.

A winner of the World Association of Newspapers’ Golden Pen of Freedom Award in 2009, Zeydabadi received the six-year sentence on 23 November. He was also sentenced to be banished to Gonabad, a remote northeastern town. It was his wife, Mahdieh Mohammadi, who revealed that the sentence has been upheld on appeal.

The news of Amoee’s sentence was announced by his lawyer, Fraideh Gheyrat. A contributor to various pro-reform publications, Amoee was arrested at his home on 20 June. His wife, fellow journalist Jila Baniyaghoob, who was arrested at the same time, was released on 19 August after payment of 100 million toman (90,000 euros) in bail.

The intelligence ministry and Revolutionary Guards began rounding up government opponents and journalists again after further opposition demonstrations on 27 December. Around 20 people have been arrested in the latest wave, including a dozen or so journalists and cyber-dissidents. The relatives of the detained journalists are still lining up outside Evin prison in an attempt to get news of those believed to be held there.