Institute for War & Peace Reporting (IWPR)
Hossein Derakhshan had hoped to return Iran safely, but
hardliners arrested him and made him centrepiece of "coup plot" case.
The long jail sentence handed down to well-known Iranian
blogger Hossein Derakhshan exemplifies the sometimes baffling way in which
decision-making takes place in Iran. While he had certainly expressed dissident
views in the past, Derakhshan had tempered his criticism more recently and had
agreed with officials that he could safely return to live in Iran, where he
planned to work for a state television channel.
The return to the fold of the man once known as Iran's
"blogfather" might have offered the regime a rare propaganda coup. Yet he was
arrested soon after his return in 2008, and held for almost two years. In
September this year, he was sentenced to 19 years and six months plus a hefty
fine for colluding with "hostile governments", anti-regime and
counterrevolutionary propaganda, offending Islamic sensibilities and running
Rumours had even circulated that he would receive the death
Derakhshan emigrated to Canada in 2000 and took out dual
citizenship. His blog posts, which served as an inspiration to many young
Iranian web users, were supportive of the reform movement and raised taboo
religious, political and even sexual issues.
When Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came to power in 2005, Derakhshan
changed tack and openly backed the conservative new president, attacking the
reformers and advocates of democracy and human rights.
At the same time, he courted controversy by visiting Israel in
2006 and describing the trip on his blog.
Derakhshan's family had close ties to powerful forces in the
regime. He himself wrote in his blog that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei
personally officiated at his first marriage, which indicates the level of access
enjoyed by the family. His father is a bazaar merchant and close to
traditionalist, conservative forces represented in politics by the Motalefeh
party. Sources close to family members say the party still holds informal
meetings at their home.
Before returning to Iran, he was interviewed times by Press
TV, the Iranian government's English language channel, during which he defended
Ahmadinejad, spoke of the decline of the West and Israel, and criticised "some
Iranians who call themselves dissidents and are now siding with the Israeli
lobby against their own president, against their own people".
In one of the few interviews given by a family member,
Derakhshan's mother Ozra Kiarashpour told the Kamtarin website last month that
he had been planning to work for Press TV in Tehran and had cleared this with
the High Council of Iranian Affairs Abroad, which promised he would not face any
problems coming back to the country.
The council, a government agency which deals with Iranian
expatriates, is headed by the highly influential Esfandyar Rahim Mashai, a close
ally of President Ahmadinejad and currently his chief of staff.
Despite this, Derakhshan was warned by friends and critics
alike that he might face problems on his return. His response was that they did
not understand how the system worked.
On arriving in Iran in October 2008, he was arrested within a
few days by the Intelligence Bureau of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps,
IRGC. He was held incommunicado and in solitary confinement for eight months,
without access even to a lawyer.
His mother said that because of the guarantees he had
received, "even though he knew they might call him for questioning, he was
unprepared for being arrested".
"After Hossein's arrest, a representative from the council
told us that they pursued his case on behalf of the Council but that
unfortunately they couldn't do anything further. Why are there such splits in
the country's security apparatus?"
The very fact that Derakhshan was in prison remained unclear
until July 2009, the month following Ahmadinejad's re-election as president.
In a bid to prove that the protests following the vote were a
"velvet coup planned from abroad", Tehran deputy prosecutor Mehdi Sepehri cited
a confession obtained from "a spy in custody whose identity cannot be revealed
for security reasons, who returned to the country to play a role in the
presidential election". There was no doubt this "spy" was Derakhshan.
As part of the indictment, the prosecutor named a number of
organisations allegedly behind the plot, including Hivos, a Dutch
non-governmental organisation, Harvard University's Global Voices project and
the Memri media institute, which Derakhshan had either worked for or been in
A source familiar with the case told Mianeh that Derakhshan
was asked to at one point in the proceedings to give a televised confession, but
refused to do so. He added that that Derakhshan told him the confession had been
extracted under pressure and had no foundation.
The fact it was the IRGC that arrested Derakhshan is
significant, given the central role the corps went on to play in dealing with
the post-election unrest. The IRGC used him as the centrepiece of an indictment
document which resulted in the jailing of leading opposition politicians and
A source close to the Derakhshan family told Mianeh that
because they had high-level contacts in the Iranian establishment, the Supreme
Leader sent an emissary to the IRGC Intelligence Bureau to seek a review of the
case. But senior IRGC figures turned this down, saying Derakhshan's switch to
supporting Ahmadinejad after so many years criticising the regime was just a
After sentence was passed, some influential figures in the
regime planned to visit the family at their home, but the IRGC intervened to
foil this expression of sympathy. The family itself was told not to publicise
the case or members would be arrested, and a source close to them says all their
communications are being intercepted.
Because Derakhshan distanced himself from former friends and
colleagues both in Iran and in the diaspora, his case has not received as much
media coverage as those of other imprisoned dissidents.
His IRGC captors not only refuse to take Derakhshan's change
of heart seriously, they are unlikely to allow him to be released in case he
reveals how they attempted to secure a confession from him several months in
advance of the June 2009 election. That would suggest that long before any
protesters took to the streets, the IRGC was concocting the "velvet coup plot"
in order to crush the reform movement, journalists and human rights defenders.
Omid Memarian is a journalist and Iran expert who lives in
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