Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Iran's diplomats are pretty into social media — one recently Instagrammed U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry during a top-level meeting. For the rest of Iranians, however, using social media can be a crime.
On Sunday, the official IRNA news agency reported that eight Facebook users were sentenced to a combined 127 years in prison for actions counter the country's national security, propaganda and insults against Islam and state officials.
No names were released, but the latest news is eerily reminiscent of another sentencing reported at the end of May, when eight people received a combined 123 years in jail for insulting the country's supreme leader on Facebook.
Masih Alinejad, an Iranian journalist in exile in London, told Mashable that the two cases appear to represent the tip of the iceberg in a larger campaign to clamp down on Iranians using Facebook. The social network, along with Twitter and YouTube, is officially banned in the country, but it is common practice for Iranians to circumvent the block.
Since the sentencing, Alinejad said she has discovered four more cases of Facebook users accused of crimes for their online posts. The four, she said, contacted her after she discussed the latest convictions on BBC Persia on Monday.
These people "are not famous, are not political activists, are not involved in any political activity — they are just ordinary people," Alinejad said in a phone interview. One was apparently arrested for posting a picture of Iranian protesters storming the British embassy in Tehran in 2011. Along with the picture, he posted a comment criticizing the attack, according to Alinejad.
"He just published a picture on his Facebook page, and now he is in jail,""He just published a picture on his Facebook page, and now he is in jail," she said.
The eight unnamed people were arrested last year by the the Iranian Cyber Police, a unit of the Revolutionary Guards, which acts under the orders of Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Religious hardliners close to Khamenei generally oppose the kinds of moderate views championed by President Hassan Rouhani, such as his repeated promises of more freedom online.
The Revolutionary Guards "see the social media environment as a new battle ground with its Western counterparts," Omid Memarian, an Iranian freelance journalist and blogger, toldMashable. Memarian also said that he has heard of several other Facebook users arrested in Tehran.
"Such sentences are given just to intimidate the people who speak their minds freely," he added.
Since Rouhani's election last year, Iranians have continually witnessed the promises of the new moderate government countered by hardliners aligned with Khamenei. The victims of this power struggle tend to be ordinary Iranians like a group of tech bloggers who received a combined 36 years in prison for "espionage," or a group of young men and women who were arrested for starring in a viral video that showed them dancing to Pharrell Williams' "Happy."
Tags: FREEDOM OF SPEECH, INTERNET FREEDOM, IRAN, U.S., US & World