Iranian bloggers wary after death of colleague jailed for criticizing regime
Omidreza Mirsayafi, 29, had been sentenced to 30 months in prison for remarks made against regime on his blog.
The first line of his first blog from Tehran in September 2006 asks: What is freedom?
Omidreza Mirsayafi answered his own question. I don't know, he wrote, but I know someday I will see its shadow falling on my land.
Two and half years later, from behind the gray walls of Tehran's Evin Prison, he phoned his mother. They talked about his battle with depression behind bars. She asked if he was taking his heart medicine.
A few hours later, on a chilly mid-March evening, the 29-year-old Mirsayafi was dead. He was Iran's first known casualty in the skirmishes between bloggers challenging the Islamic regime and authorities striking back with the tools they know best - imprisonment and intimidation.
This showdown has been building for years in Iran, with bloggers and social network sites becoming the main outlet for everything from hard-edged political dissent to underground videos and music. The role of Iranian bloggers as liberal opinion-shapers could intensify ahead of June 12 elections that will decide whether arch-conservative President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad remains for another four years. The outcome also could set the tone for Washington's overtures for dialogue with Tehran, which has so far resisted Western pressure for greater press and Internet freedoms.
Omidreza is a symbol of many things, said Jillian York, a project coordinator at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University, who exchanged e-mails with Mirsayafi in the months before his death. He is a symbol of the free speech battles within Iran and a symbol that it would get worse.
Dozens of activists are now jailed in Iran, including at least two prominent bloggers. One of them, Hussein Derakhshan, helped ignite the Iranian blog boom in 2001 by posting simple instructions to create sites in Farsi.
What makes Mirsayafi stand out, however, was not his notoriety. It's just the opposite. Mirsayafi had a modest - what could even be called irrelevant - presence in the Iranian blogosphere.
Omidreza was just an ordinary blogger, said Farhad Moradian, an Iranian Jewish emigre to Israel who writes a blog from Tel Aviv. This is the big alarm.
A Facebook page in Mirsayafi's memory was formed after his death March 18. It was filled with condolences, rants and shared apprehension.
Said one entry: The next Mirsayafi could be me.
Mirsayafi began his blog - called simply Rouznegar, or Diary Writer - in 2006 as a kind of online salon to concentrate on daily Tehran life, culture and music. Diary included interviews with leading Iranian musicians and artists.
But, as is often the case in Iran, he could not avoid politics.
His first post dabbled in general rhetoric about liberty. It was tame stuff compared with the bromides of other bloggers. Over the months, however, Mirsayafi's writing developed more bite. He was shaken particularly by the muzzling of other bloggers.
A post on June 22, 2007 broke the dam. He lashed at authorities by name, including crossing a red line that few dare to even approach: condemning the memory of the late Islamic Revolution leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
Mirsayafi wrote: Living in a country whose leader is Khomeini is nauseating.
Living in a country whose president is Ahmadinejad is a big shame.
He went on to skewer other Iranian officials and closed with the line: Living in a country that calls itself an Islamic Republic is a disgrace.
Mirsayafi knew he entered dangerous territory. But he felt his blog was simply too obscure to draw notice among the hundreds of other Iranian Web writers from inside the country and abroad, say friends and family.
He described what happened next in a letter written earlier this year to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
On April 22, 2008, four officials from Iran's Revolutionary Court came to the small house in eastern Tehran that he shared with his parents. They searched everywhere and confiscated my computer and personal items, he wrote to Ban. And I was arrested.
Mirsayafi was accused of insulting Iran's leaders and its Islamic character - charges that can bring years in prison - and was placed in solitary confinement in Evin. His family, meanwhile, reached out to Mohammed Ali Dadkhah, a lawyer who has built a bulldog reputation while defending bloggers and other political activists.
After 40 days, Mirsayafi was released. As a guarantee he wouldn't flee the country, his family offered the deed to property worth about $50,000, said his brother Amir. Mirsayafi's blog site was shut down.
Authorities had been making cyber-raids for years. Their first salvo was attempts to block specific blogs and Web sites. But hackers bypassed the controls by using proxy sites and other Web shortcuts. Then arrests started after the election of Ahmadinejad in 2005.
The media rights group Reporters Without Borders lists 68 bloggers imprisoned around the world, including two in Iran and nearly 50 in China.
The irony is that many Iranian leaders have adapted well to the wired age. Ahmadinejad's office maintains a Web site. So do the Revolutionary Guards, the military enforcers. Political groups send out text messages to supporters' mobile phones. Some Shi'ite clerics have e-mail addresses.
Mohammed Ali Abtahi, who was a pioneer political blogger as vice president under former President Mohammad Khatami, worries that the assault on Iranian blogs could leave them sanitized of any genuine discourse.
"If the authorities continue with their reprisals, bloggers will start to censor themselves and we'll see only non-political subjects," he said.
But Tehran-based bloggers such as Askan Monfared show no sign of cooling down.
He believes the Islamic regime is panicked by its inability to control the Web as it does the mainstream media.
"They cannot distinguish between what's insulting and what is legitimate critique," he said. "There is no civil society until we reach that point."
On Nov. 2, Mirsayafi was brought before the Revolutionary Court. The charges were serious: insulting the country's leaders and making anti-state propaganda. Some expert witnesses said they didn't believe Mirsayafi's blog violated the statutes, according to various reports.
The court disagreed and sentenced him to 30 months in prison. He was allowed at first to remain free while he appealed, but authorities swooped in Feb. 7.
His lawyer said there was no warning or explanation.
Mirsayafi was placed in Evin's Cell 7, Hall 5 along with his friend, Abbas Khorsandi, a political activist detained since 2007. Evin is Iran's most notorious lockup and the final stop for those who run afoul of the regime.
In 2003, Iranian-Canadian photojournalist Zahra Kazemi was arrested for taking photographs in front of Evin and died several days later in the prison. An investigative panel concluded Kazemi died of a fractured skull and brain hemorrhage caused by a physical attack, but the findings were rejected by Iran's conservative judiciary. And an Iranian-American journalist, Roxana Saberi, was sent to Evin in February and was charged this week as a spy.
In Evin, Mirsayafi sometimes talked of suicide, said Shiva Nazar Ahari, secretary of the Committee of Human Rights Reporters in Tehran. He also worried about whether he could get more of the prescription drug Inderal, used to control erratic heart rhythms.
Nazar Ahari said she called Mirsayafi every few days.
On one of his last conversations with me, he said, 'I wish I actually did something real to insult the regime since I ended up in prison anyway,' she said.
Mirsayafi's sister, Masoumeh, said they both wrote letters to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in early March asking for forgiveness. They never received a reply, she said.
On March 18, Mirsayafi overdosed on tranquilizers supplied by the prison and was only treated in the prison clinic rather than transferred to a hospital, according to reports attributed to an inmate physician, Dr. Hessam Firoozi. Judicial and prison authorities did not reply to repeated requests for comment by The Associated Press.
Firoozi, who is serving a 15-month sentence, called his lawyer. Quickly, word spread from blog to blog, then on to right groups and the international media.
Reporters Without Borders said Mirsayafi's death was a sad reminder of the fact that the Iranian regime is one of the harshest for journalists and bloggers. Jennifer Windsor, executive director of Freedom House, a Washington-based pro-democracy group, said it highlighted the dangerously inhospitable climate for bloggers.
Mirsayafi was buried the day after his death. Fellow bloggers joined in a memorial of their own by posting some of his writings. His first blog post was among the most widely cited.
I asked: When will we understand the meaning of freedom?
I answered: When our wisdom can be delivered from ignorance, selfishness and foolishness.