Reporters Without Borders protested strongly today (August 18, 2004) against a three years and 10 months prison sentence passed on theology student Mojtaba Lotfi for allegedly posting "lies" on the Internet.
"The Iranian regime has once more shown it does not tolerate criticism, even from its own religious people," the worldwide press freedom organisation said.
Lofti was released on bail of 650 million rials (80 000 euros) after his 14 August sentence by a religious court in the holy city of Qom pending an appeal at a date not yet announced. He was tried in late July.
Taking tougher line on Internet, authorities try cyber-dissident and draft harsh bill
Reporters Without Borders voiced concern today about increased efforts by the Iranian authorities to gag the Internet, including the trial of a theology student at the end of July for a message posted on a news website and a proposed law that would throttle online dissent.
"The authorities recently took a tougher line with online publications and we saw censorship being stepped up since the legislative elections in February," the organisation said. "Now they seem to be going a step further by directly targeting cyber-dissidents and by preparing a bill that would give a legal basis for cracking down."
Cyber-dissident brought to trial
Mojtaba Lotfi, a theologian and former journalist with the reformist daily Khordad (which was closed in 2000), was arrested at the start of May and imprisoned in the holy city of Qom. Reporters Without Borders has been told that he was tried at the end of July for "spying" and for "publishing false information" but the judicial authorities have not announced their verdict.
Lotfi posted an article entitled "Respect for human rights in cases involving the clergy" on www.naqshineh.com, a website based in Qom. Naqshineh is also subject to judicial proceedings, in particular because of articles about the recent legislative elections. The site has been blocked since March on the orders of the Qom authorities.
Reporters Without Borders has examined the official draft of the proposed law "on the punishment of crimes linked to the Internet," published in February in the newspaper Iran. It would create a legislative framework that would severely restrict free expression online.
It proposes prison sentences of one to three years for the dissemination of "information that poses a threat for the country's internal or external security" and five to 15 years if the information is passed to "foreign states or foreign organisations."
The bill envisages combatting "nauseating" content such as "sexual organs or sexual acts, including those involving heterosexual relations as well as homosexual relations or relations with animals." The sentences proposed for this kind of offence are up to a year in prison and a fine of 10 million rials (950 euros).
One of the most serious crimes in this draft law is the dissemination of "false information" about the Supreme Guide or other regime officials, which is punishable by six months in prison and a 10 million rials fine.
The bill also defines the responsibilities of Internet companies such as cybercafés and ISPs, which would be required to monitor all content to which they offer access, and would have to block "nauseating" or illegal sites. They would also be required to alert the police and help identify those responsible for disseminating such content.
Cybercafé and ISP owners who did not comply would risk sentences of up to five years in prison, the closure of their company and a ban on working in the Internet sector for as long as the judge saw fit. They would also be required to preserve all connection data and the identity of their clients for three months after each online session.
The police would not need a judge's authorisation in order to search Internet users' homes or the premises of any legal entity involved in Internet activity. And when carrying out searches, the police would be able to confiscate any computer equipment or computer files. At the same time, an individual or company could refuse to let the police conduct a search, in which case the police would have to get a court warrant.
In its final section, the bill's authors say the legislation should conform to international norms and conventions concerning the Internet and they propose that a commission be set up both to study this issue and to explain the Islamic Republic's measures to the international community. But they add : "the foreign laws will not apply if they are contrary to the sharia or Iranian law of if they run counter to the country's security and interest."
... Payvand News - 8/24/04 ... --