An Iranian blogger sent to Tehran's infamous Evin
prison last month for allegedly insulting Iran's religious leaders and agitating
against the government has died under questionable circumstances.
Omidreza Mirsayafi had consistently denied the charges against him, saying his blog posts were not political in nature, while relatives and a fellow inmate are casting doubt on the official cause of death.
Prison authorities have notified Mirsayafi's family that he committed suicide on March 18 by overdosing on sedative tables.
But while Mirsayafi was known to have taken such medication to treat depression, his sister says he would not have possessed enough to kill himself.
Masoumeh Mirsayafi tells RFE/RL's Radio Farda that the official explanation for her 25-year-old brother's death is very suspicious.
"I even asked him a few days ago how often he
took the tablets. He told me: 'every morning and evening, when it is time to
take the tablets, we ask the prison clinic and they give us our tablets.' I find
it hard to believe how he had [so many] tablets as to commit suicide by
overdose," Mirsayafi says.
A fellow inmate has also cast doubt on the official version of events, Omidreza Mirsayafi's lawyer tells RFE/RL's Radio Farda.
Mohammad Ali Dadkhah, who represented the blogger, claims that a doctor imprisoned at Evin named Hesem Firozi told him the death could be attributed entirely to the prison's failure to provide Mirsayafi with proper medical assistance.
"Doctor Firozi contacted me from Evin prison and said [Mirsayafi] was having an irregular pulse rate today. He was taken to the prison hospital," Dadkhah says.
"The doctor told them how to treat him, asked them to send him to a city hospital. But they ignored the doctor and said [Mirsayafi] was faking his illness. The doctor said, 'his heartbeat is 40 per minute, you can't fake that.' But they sent the doctor out of the room."
Mirsayafi's problems with the authorities began when he went to trial in November to face charges of insulting the country's religious leaders and propagating against the government.
He spent more than 40 days in custody before he was released after posting a heavy bond.
On February 7, he was again summoned for questioning, and had been detained at Evin prison since.
Denying all the charges against him, Mirsayafi maintained he had nothing to do with politics. In a letter written from Evin to the media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF), the blogger wrote: "I am a cultural blogger, not a political blogger. Of all the articles I have posted online, only two or three were satirical. I did not mean to insult anyone."
Scrutiny of bloggers is not uncommon in Iran. According to RSF, some 70 bloggers, including many women, have been targeted by Iranian authorities since President Mahmud Ahmadinejad came to power in 2005.
Mojtaba Lotfi, a religious blogger, is currently
serving a four-year prison sentence after being accused of disseminating the
views of a dissident ayatollah.
"Cyberfeminists" Jelveh Javaheri and Maryam Hosseinkhah spent several weeks in prison in 2008 owing to articles they wrote demanding respect for women's rights. They were released after paying significant amounts to secure their release on bond.
And Hossein Derakhshan and Esmail Jafari both spent time in detention in 2008 for disseminating "antigovernment publicity" on their blogs.
Reza Moeni, the head of RSF's Iran, Afghanistan, and Tajikistan desk, said most Iranian bloggers refrain from writing about major political issues.
"Nevertheless, they are targeted by the government, which does not tolerate any free expression of views through the Internet," Moeni tells RFE/RL.
"Today when a young blogger wants to express his opinion about social and political issues, or even about issues concerning his education, it contradicts with the government's totalitarian views," Dadkhah says.
"The reality is that these young people do not want to accept what their parents accepted 30 years ago. And it is their right. They have opinions about their society. Today you can't tell someone to stay silent."
Iran has set up a special office of prosecutors in Tehran that exclusively deals with Internet crimes.
In addition to personally targeting bloggers, the authorities exercise many other means and methods to hamper the free flow of information through the Internet.
Access is blocked to many online news sources, opposition webpages, and even music websites. And suggestions have been made that the country's notoriously slow Internet speeds are kept that way by design, as it hampers the uploading of photos, audio, and video to websites and blogs.
Despite such obstacles, however, blogging is booming in Iran. In fact, according to RSF, Farsi/Tajik has become the fifth most popular language in the blogosphere.
RFE/RL's Radio Farda contributed to this report
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