The Show Must Go On: Iran’s Mass Trial and its Losing War on Bloggers

Iran’s campaign to protect the results of the June 12 double-plus democratic election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad shifted into a new gear on Saturday when the regime began the mass trial of more than 100 individuals arrested for their alleged involvement in protests and post-election violence. Iranian leaders likely hope that the trial will serve as a stiff warning to potential protestors, and to Iranian bloggers in particular. But reactions to the regime’s latest game of whack-a-blogger have been anything but muted.

Mohammad Ali Abtahi, a former vice president, liberal cleric, and leading reformist blogger, is prominent amongst the accused. You could even say he is the star of the show (trial). The government devoted a televised press conference to Abtahi’s "confession," in which he claimed that election fraud was a fantasy and apologized for his betrayal of the Islamic Revolution. One shudders to imagine the doubtlessly brutal actions that prompted Abtahi’s paean to the regime, but you can view pictures of Abtahi before and after his arrest here. (Fun Fact: America is more permissive of torture than some of the usual suspects.)

This is hardly the first time that the regime has targeted bloggers. In March, Omid Mirsayafi, a blogger who had been sentenced to two years for allegedly insulting religious leaders, died in the notorious Evin prison. Hossein Derakhshan, the Iranian-Canadian “blogfather of Iran”, was arrested in November 2008 and charged with spying for Israel. My personal favorite is the story of the regime’s treatment of Sina Motalebi, a film critic, blogger, and cultural reformer. The intelligence division arrested Motalebi in April 2003, later prompting him to seek asylum in the Netherlands. When he resumed blogging and told Human Rights Watch about his 23 day long detention in solitary confinement, the Iranian government arrested his father and held him for ten days. 

Thus far, the persecution of Iranian bloggers has been relatively costless for the government. This time, however, the regime seems to have overplayed its hand.  The legal event is so clearly staged that Mohammad Khatami, a former President of Iran, and (more importantly) Mohsen Rezaei, a leading conservative and former Commander of the Revolutionary Guard, have denounced the trial as a sham.

The trial has been widely publicized outside of Iran, due in part to the large Iranian presence on Twitter. This appears to have refocused the blogosphere and the media on the protests in Iran. Even The Daily Show joined in. Here's to hoping this story stays in our mind's eye (I'm fairly confident Michael Jackson can only die once). Iranian bloggers have struggled to shed light on the atavistic lumberings of the Iranian regime, the least we can do is watch. 

(Andrew Moshirnia is a rising second-year law student at Harvard Law School and a CMLP legal intern.)

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons, licensed under a GNU Free Documentation License.


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