Iran govt faces online backlash for activists’ torture

An undated handout photo shows Esmail Bakhshi. — Reuters

GENEVA/LONDON — In early January, labor activist Esmail Bakhshi posted a letter on Instagram saying he had been tortured in jail, attracting support from tens of thousands of Iranians online.

Bakhshi, who said he was still in pain, also challenged the intelligence minister, a cleric, to a public debate about the religious justification for torture. Late last month, Bakhshi was rearrested.

Sepideh Qoliyan, a journalist covering labor issues in the Ahvaz region, was also rearrested on the same day after saying on social media that she had been abused in jail.

Bakhshi’s claims of torture and the social media furor that followed led Iranian President Hassan Rohani to call for an investigation, and the intelligence minister subsequently met with a parliamentary committee to discuss the case, a rare example of top officials being prompted to act by a public backlash online.

“Each sentence and description of torture from the mouths of #Sepideh_Qoliyan and #Esmail_Bakhshi should be remembered and not forgotten because they are now alone with the torturers and under pressure and defenseless. Let us not forget,” a user named Atish posted on Twitter in Farsi on Feb. 11.

“When thousands of people share it on social media, the pressure for accountability goes up,” said Hadi Ghaemi, executive director at the New York-based Center for Human Rights in Iran.

Tehran prosecutor Abbas Jafari Dolatabadi said last month, without naming Bakhshi, that allegations of torture online constitute a crime.

His comments follow growing pressure from officials to close Instagram, which has about 24 million users in Iran. Iran last year shut down the Telegram messaging app, which had about 40 million users in the country, citing security concerns.

The arrests of Bakhshi and Qoliyan are part of a crackdown in Ahvaz. Hundreds of activists there pushing for workers’ and minority rights, two of the most contentious issues in Iran, have been detained in recent weeks.

The Arab minority in southwest Iran has long claimed that it faces discrimination from the central government. Frustration has occasionally turned into violence: in 2005 the city was struck by bomb attacks for which government sources blame Arab separatist groups.

In recent weeks, several activists in Ahvaz have been sentenced to death on security charges, according to their families and human rights groups.

Abdollah Marmazi, an Arab rights activist, was arrested last autumn on security charges after the Ahvaz attack. He was not allowed to see his lawyer or contact his family for months, his sister Amal said in an interview from London. Last month, he was sentenced to death.

Their brother Hatam, also an Arab rights activist, was killed in jail after being arrested last summer, according to Amal. “My family has no hope of seeing him again,” she said. “They believe he is dead.”

Amnesty documented the arrest in 2018 of more than 7,000 “protesters, students, journalists, environmental activists, workers and human rights defenders, including lawyers, women’s rights activists, minority rights activists and trade unionists”.

Bakhshi and Qoliyan were initially arrested last November after attending a gathering of workers from the Haft Tapeh sugar cane factory who were demanding unpaid wages.

Hundreds of workers from an Ahvaz steel mill were protesting about unpaid wages at the same time. Authorities feared that the labor protests could dovetail with grievances of minority rights activists and cause further unrest, analysts and activists said.

Labor activists elsewhere in the country went online to support the protesting Ahvaz workers.

Both Bakhshi and Qoliyan turned to social media to detail the abuse they said they faced in custody after they were released in December. Bakshi wrote in Jan. 4 on Instagram that security agents beat him “to the edge of death”. — Reuters