Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei speaks at a meeting of Revolutionary Guard commanders, in a photo released by an official website of the Iranian supreme leader's office on Tuesday, Sept. 17.
Iran has sentenced a group of tech bloggers to a combined 36 years in prison for espionage and working with foreign media.
A court sentenced the group, who all worked for the tech gadgets site Narenji, to prison terms ranging from 1.5 to 11 years, a source close to the bloggers told Mash. News of their sentencing was first reported by the local outlet Sardabir News.
The original report didn't include names, but it did name the company that owns Narenji, which is called Govashir. The prosecutor of the Islamic Revolutionary Court of Kerman was quoted as saying 11 people were arrested for "cyber activity" and "content production for opposition media" and "some of them" are now in jail after confessing. The prosecutor also said some of them had connections to BBC Persian, according to a translation by Gissou Nia, the executive director of the The Iran Human Rights Documentation Center (IHRDC).
Nia, as well as others, quickly inferred that those sentenced were the Narenji bloggers.
Eight Narenji bloggers, along with another eight cyber activists, were arrested by the Revolutionary Guards in early December of last year, accused of working against the country's national security and having ties with foreign "enemy media."
Iranian state TV later showed them facing a wall, handcuffed. And Ali Tavakoli, the head of the Iranian Judiciary in Kerman, labelled them as a "gang of enemy cyber activists," accusing them of "Internet activities aiming for a ‘soft overthrow’ of the Iranian regime."
Their arrest caught many by surprise, since they didn't seem to fit the profile of Internet activists who would be targeted by Iranian hardliners. Al Jazeera has described Narenji as the Iranian version of Mashable or Gizmodo, saying the blog was "popular in Iran for its reviews of things like Android and iPhone apps but [...] never dipped its toes into the political" to avoid trouble.
BBC Persian has not responded to Mashable's request for comment, but the outlet has previously denied any affiliations with Narenji, and said it doesn't even have personnel in the country.
Three of the bloggers were later released, but the following five remained in custody: Aliasghar Honarmand (Founder of Narenji and owner of Paat Shargh Govashir, the company which owns Narenji), Abbas Vahedi (Editor of Narenji), Hossein Nozari (Director of Paat Shargh Govashir), Reza Nozari (tech blogger of Nardebaan, sister website of Narenji), Ehsan Paknejad (tech blogger on Narenji).
The bloggers received the following sentences, according to Mashable's source, who asked to remain anonymous to protect his safety: Honarmand, 11 years; Vahedi: 2.5 years; Hossein Nozari: 7 years; Reza Nozari: 1.5 years with 3 years of probation; Paknejad: 5 years. The other six people, whose identities are unknown at this point, all received prison sentences of 1.5 years in prison with 3 years' probation. (While the five bloggers who were identified appear to have been part of the original group of 16 arrested, it's not currently clear whether that holds true for the unidentified six.)
Following their arrest, Narenji was forced to shut down, and it's now offline. Its Twitter account has been inactive since December 3.
The harsh sentences might have a political goal, according to Nia, who is a human rights lawyer and has recently launched Unlock Iran, a campaign to raise awareness of human rights violations in the country.
"At first blush I'd say 11 years is a long time to serve for these 'crimes' and this could be a message to Rouhani and others within the government pushing for lessening of Internet and social media restrictions," she told Mashable.
Hadi Ghaemi, the executive director of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, who has followed the case closely, told Mashable that his organization is still trying to determine exactly what happened.
"From what we have determined so far the case of Naranji members has been a very opaque judicial process," he said. "They were held in solitary for lengthy periods, did not have access to independent lawyers. If these sentences of one to 11 years is indeed in their case, then it would be some of the harshest sentences with regards to online activities so far."
The sentencing would follow the recent pattern of harsh penalties that experts say are designed to scare Iranian netizens.The sentencing would follow the recent pattern of harsh penalties that experts say are designed to scare Iranian netizens. In late May, a local court sentenced eight people to a combined 123 years in prison. One of them, a British woman named Roya Saberinejad Nobakht, received a sentence of 20 years, allegedly for calling Iran's government too controlling and "too Islamic" in comments she had made to friends on Facebook and in an online chat.
A few days earlier, Iranian authorities had arrested six people for starring in a YouTube video in which they lip-synced and danced to the Pharrell Williams song "Happy." The six were arrested, and later released, after the video went viral.
The incidents, according to Mahsa Alimardani, an Iranian Internet researcher based in Toronto, underscore the tension between the moderate government of President Hassan Rouhani, and the so-called hardliners loyal to the Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
"Many Iranian voters were seduced by Hassan Rouhani’s campaign narrative. His victory kindled hope in the hearts of many young Iranians for a brighter future and easier access to the Internet — an important factor in a nation with one of the highest Internet penetration rates in the region," Alimardani wrote in a blog post. "Unfortunately, these hopes are beginning to wane."
The people sentenced on Thursday have now 20 days to appeal the ruling, but Nia warns that an appeal might not change much.
"The chance of getting these convictions overturned is not high," she said.