Iran is the biggest prison for journalists

INU – On Friday it was reported that the journalist and political analyst Morad Saghafi had been arrested just days after he verbally criticized the mayor of Tehran, saying in part that “financial corruption and tyranny” had resulted from his neglect of the interests of the people. No formal charges were announced and no reason was given for the arrest, which is being regarded as part of a recently-expanded crackdown on journalists, political activists, and other perceived threats to the Islamic Republic’s hardline identity.

In its report on Saghafi’s case, reports also makes mention of the re-arrest of Ehsan Mazandarani, just weeks after his release from a 15-month political imprisonment during which he suffered a heart attack. His unexplained return to prison occurred on March 12, and IranWire also notes that at least 12 administrators for the Telegram instant messaging app had been arrested in late February. Furthermore, the Center for Human Rights in Iran recently reported on a number of other arrests of activists and journalists to underscore the fact that the regime has intensified its enforcement of restrictions on dissent and perceived pro-Western attitudes.

But another report seems to suggest that there is good news in terms of the political response to this situation. It notes that Ali Motahari, the deputy speaker of the Iranian parliament, had spoken to the Iranian Students News Agency in order to express his intention to summon the intelligence minister for questioning over some of the latest arrests. Motahari specifically called attention to the case of Mazandarani and also to that of one of the Telegram administrators, Ali Ahmadnia.

Motahari frequently speaks out on controversial matters in parliament and it indicates that he suggested parliament should begin the process of impeaching the intelligence minister if he fails to provide adequate answers regarding the arrests. However, it remains to be what Motahari will do to follow up on his statements to the media, and it is virtually inevitable that he would lack the support among his colleagues to remove the intelligence minister or otherwise interfere with the ongoing crackdown.

Minority factions of parliament occasionally speak out on issues that are of prominent concern to human rights activists and serious reformists, but this rarely translates into meaningful political action. The persistence of this situation is assured by the extensive hardline control over the legislature, with the Guardian Council being empowered to prevent most reformists from standing for election, and also to obstruct any legislation that seems to challenge the views of the clerical leadership.

In recent months there has been much talk about the possibility of the Iranian parliament changing the law to diminish the frequency with which the death penalty is applied to non-violent drug crimes. The hanging of these sorts of criminals has helped to guarantee that Iran remains at the top of the list of countries with the highest per-capita rate of executions. Some legislators have responded by pushing for change, and the  Human Rights sources in Iran even reported on Friday that a parliamentary committee had voted in favor of the relevant amendment to sentencing laws.

But the same report also points out that Sadegh Larijani, the head of the Iranian judiciary and brother of Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani remained intransigent on this issue. Not only can he be expected to undermine the reform effort, but the parliament as a whole retains a solid conservative majority. And even if the effort does overcome this obstacle, it is widely expected that the Guardian Council would judge the proposed clemency to be out of keeping with the principles of the Islamic Republic.

In its reporting on the recent spate of arrests, the CHRI notes that they are being driven primarily by the Intelligence Ministry, which is technically under the control of President Hassan Rouhani, a supposed moderate by the standards of the regime. With less than two months to go until Rouhani stands for reelection, those arrests serve as the latest reminder that he has failed to take action toward the fulfillment of any of his campaign promises regarding the release of political prisoners and the reform of the judicial system.

Progressive messaging has long been available in the Islamic Republic form figures like Rouhani and Motahari, but their public statements have not yet translated into realistic expectations of internal reform.

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