Citizen-journalist Hossein Derakhshan – who helped inspire a network of dissident bloggers throughout the Iranian diaspora – was arrested in 2008 in Iran and is now on trial facing a number of charges, including "creating propaganda against the Islamic regime." Newsweek correspondent Maziar Bahari, who was himself imprisoned and tortured in Iran for four months last year and then released, tells us that Derakhshan might not be so lucky.
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BOB GARFIELD: In the early 2000s, Iranian expat Hossein Derakhshan, from his adopted home of Canada, helped inspire a network of dissident bloggers throughout the Iranian diaspora. An influential critic of both the Iranian government and its Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, he was dubbed “the Blogfather of Iran.” Years later, Derakhshan, his sympathies changed, grew far less critical and in 2008 he returned to Iran, where he was promptly imprisoned and is now on trial facing a slew of charges, including, according to reports by the BBC, quote, “collaborating with enemy states, creating propaganda against the Islamic regime and insulting religious sanctity.” News came this week that prosecutors in Iran are seeking Derakhshan’s execution. Newsweek correspondent Maziar Bahari found himself in a similar situation last year when he was imprisoned and tortured in Iran for four months and then, after a media campaign waged by his employer and his family, was suddenly released. Bahari told us that Derakhshan might not be so lucky.
MAZIAR BAHARI: Hossein Derakhshan is a clear case of the internal battle between the Revolutionary Guards and the Ministry of Intelligence. Allegedly he was promised by Ministry of Intelligence that he could go back to Iran without any problem. But the Revolutionary Guards, they were the people who arrested me, and they also arrested Hossein in order to teach the Ministry of Intelligence a lesson that they can do whatever they want to do.
BOB GARFIELD: And, fundamentally, the Iranians don't recognize dual citizenship, so the fact that Derakhshan has an Iranian passport as far as they're concerned renders his Canadianness irrelevant.
MAZIAR BAHARI: That’s what the Iranian government and the Revolutionary Guards say. In my case, and in case of many other dual citizens, including Roxana Saberi, if the second country of that person – in my case, Canada, in Roxana’s case, the United States – if they're vocal about their citizens, then the Iranian government listens and reacts to the actions of the foreign government. Iran really wants to be a legitimate government internationally. I think that Hossein Derakhshan’s family should have been vocal from the beginning, because only people who have had a campaign for them have been released.
BOB GARFIELD: Derakhshan now faces a death sentence for doing nothing more than communicating with dissidents. That doesn't sound like the activity of a government that craves legitimacy.
MAZIAR BAHARI: They want to teach a big lesson to all the people who are thinking about cyber activities in Iran, that, you know, we are dealing with you like a criminal. Hossein, the only thing he did was criticize the Iranian government. In the past, before his arrest, for two, three years, he was very complimentary about Ahmadinejad, and he actually said that Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the revolution, was one of the greatest men in history.
BOB GARFIELD: So he’s kind of an unlikely target for the anger of the regime.
MAZIAR BAHARI: Well, the problem with this regime is that we don't know what is likely and what is unlikely. It’s sometimes cynically pragmatic; sometimes it’s ideological and sometimes totally irrational. The Iranian government thinks that its survival is in creating an insecure atmosphere for the people inside Iran and also make itself unpredictable in the international scene.
BOB GARFIELD: We don't know who the prime actors are and what their motives are, but if it is to intimidate the diaspora and Iranians living in Iran from in any way connecting with the dissident community, isn't this apt to have exactly the opposite effect?
MAZIAR BAHARI: You’re right. The Iranian government acts like a desperate person and just considers its short-term interest. But it can have really negative consequences for Iran and also for the regime that is running Iran right now.
BOB GARFIELD: You said approximately the same thing in an Op-Ed in The New York Times -
MAZIAR BAHARI: Mm-hmm.
BOB GARFIELD: - an open letter to the Ayatollah Khamenei, Supreme Leader, imploring him to free journalists.
MAZIAR BAHARI: Yeah.
BOB GARFIELD: Who was the audience for that? I'm going to assume that the Ayatollah doesn't, you know, spend his mornings over coffee flipping through The New York Times.
MAZIAR BAHARI: Well, that article was translated into Persian and it was on all the Persian websites. I'm not sure whether Ayatollah read it or not but, you know, I don't have his personal address so I couldn't send it to him. But my point in that open letter to Khamenei was if you allow criticism it’s not only good for the country, it’s good for you. It guarantees your own survival.
BOB GARFIELD: You have been in Derakhshan’s place. What is he likely experiencing right now in prison?
MAZIAR BAHARI: My interrogator used to tell me that one morning I wake you up, I put you on a chair, I put the noose around your neck and just kick the chair off your feet. And I'm sure that Hossein is going through the same thing, a lot of psychological as well as physical pressure. Basically they're going to make his life hell for him.
BOB GARFIELD: Will they execute him?
MAZIAR BAHARI: I don't think so. I think they're going to change their decision and maybe they give a 15-year or 25-year sentence, which is still a very harsh sentence for someone who blogged, someone who did not use violence, someone who did not do anything illegally.
BOB GARFIELD: Maziar, thank you so much.
MAZIAR BAHARI: It’s been my pleasure.
BOB GARFIELD: Maziar Behari is an Iranian-Canadian reporter for Newsweek. He was jailed and tortured in Iran from June to October of 2009.