Iran's Deadly Cyber Police: Indefinite Detention and Execution for Netizens

Iran's terrifying campaign against the internet and netizens is about to go full-throttle with the country's own intranet.
Written by Violet Blue, Contributor

Iran's recent death sentence of a developer and internet traffic throttling are only part of Iran's wider campaign against bloggers, technology, and the free-flowing information of the internet.

In mid-January it was reported that web developer Saeed Malekpour had been sentenced to death in Iran for allegedly building and maintaining porn websites.

UPDATE 02.17.12 PST 2:25: Despite opposition, Iran has set to schedule Malekpour's execution and it is in the final stage within the Iranian court system. His death sentence has been fast-tracked, despite the fact he did not work on a porn website (as per his accusation and charges).

His case has just been transferred to Iranian's judicial arena that is responsible for following through with death sentences (The Circuit Court for Execution of sentences).

This news is being called "a lethal abuse of the law." According to his attorneys Malekpour's death may happen "at any moment." /End update

The developer had been jailed secretly for over a year in solitary confinement and says he endured electrocutions, beatings, and removal of his teeth with pliers to elicit a "confession."

Malekpour, a Canadian citizen, had actually only contributed to a script as part of a generic website photo uploader.

According to Malekpour's wife Mrs. Eftekhari, the Iranian court charges for his alleged involvement with a pornographic website included:

Propaganda against the regime, operating immoral web sites, insulting divine principles, insulting the president, relations with groups that oppose the regime, being contact with foreigners. In general, these are known as the “corrupt on the earth.”

The shorthand is that he was charged with "Waging war against God" and sentenced to death.

At the end of January the U.S. State Department issued a statement that the developer had not received due process, while outcry for Malekpour's release began to be heard around the world.

He is still in prison awaiting execution.

Malekpour was not arrested alone.

The web developer and IT professionals Vahid Asghari and Ahmad Reza Hasempour were arrested at the same time.

They were targeted because they were seen as capable of hosting, or assisting with the building of websites. Each were sentenced to death last month.

Widespread arrests and Iran's own National Internet

It was reported that widespread arrests of human rights activists across Iran were, according to the Iran Revolutionary Guard Corps, in conjunction with a "certain network of individuals being involved in a network of decadence on the internet."

In early 2011, Iran’s top police chief was quoted by the AP as saying that "Cyber Police" forces were on the ground in major cities to guard against internet threats and curb Western influences.

At the opening of a new police headquarters in the Shiite seminary city of Qom Gen. Ismail Ahmadi Moghaddam said,

“There is no time to wait. We will have cyber police all over Iran.”

By September 2011, pro-government Iranian news outlet Mashregh News stated that Iran was building a "cyber army" of 250,000 people "aimed at combating corruption on the Internet" and "external penetrations from the West."

The Mashregh News report related that "The national Internet is the last step in this cyber war: Iran wants its own network."

Indeed: last March Iran announced the launch of its multimillion dollar project to build an Iranian intranet.

"The Iranian Revolution Guards are the arm for monitoring cyberspace," the report said. "This especially powerful branch of Iran's armed forces took control of the national institution responsible for networks in 2009."

IRG was taking full control just after the beginning of widespread internet-related arrests, like Malekpour - and many more.

State-controlled internet access

In early January 2012, Iran's Cyber Police began surveillance on users of internet cafes, including the installation of video cameras and tracking users' names, father's names, and users' complete digital footprints.

At the same time, Iranian internet users claimed the government had blocked numerous websites and access to VPNs.

Last week the Iranian government had blocked all encrypted traffic, notably through the Tor anonymizing network. Tor endeavored and its traffic was back online by Sunday.

But since February 10, over 30 million Iranians have been unable to access Gmail and other Google services (as well as Microsoft's free Hotmail service), according to confirmation by Bloomberg.

The Wall Street Journal recognized the new internet cafe clampdown as part of the Iranian Cyber Police wider agenda, saying:

The network slowdown likely heralds the arrival of an initiative Iran has been readying—a "halal" domestic intranet that it has said will insulate its citizens from Western ideology and un-Islamic culture, and eventually replace the Internet.

This week's slowdown came amid tests of the Iranian intranet, according to domestic media reports that cited a spokesman for a union of computer-systems firms. He said the intranet is set to go live within a few weeks.

Taken together, the moves represent Iran's boldest attempts to control flows of online information.

But this isn't just a tale about state-run internet censorship. Or a government gearing up for March elections - though that is certainly part of this deeply troubling story.

Execution and indefinite detention for bloggers and netizens

Amnesty International recently raised the alarm that Iran is targeting for execution a growing number of media workers because of their work on the internet.

Amnesty writes,

Iranian authorities continue their crackdown on bloggers and other users of the internet.

The Supreme Court's [Malekpour] decision comes as the Iranian government is stepping up its targeting of internet users in a crackdown on freedom of expression ahead of the Iranian parliamentary elections in March. (...)

Blogger Vahid Asghari, who had been studying information and computer technology in India prior to his arrest in 2008, and website administrator Ahmad Reza Hashempour are also on death row after apparently unfair trials, awaiting execution on internet-related charges.

Dual Iranian and Canadian national, Hossein Derakhshan, known as the "blogfather" for introducing blogging to Iran, is serving a 19 and a half year sentence on internet-related charges.

Under the watch of Iran's cyber police, men and women have been jailed, tortured and sentenced to death for technology and alleged internet-related crimes.

Scan the Information from the Iran Prisoner List (begun in 2009). You'll see plenty of arrests and charges for ordinary citizens and: bloggers, webmasters, engineers, website designers, numerous "netizens, " so-called "web activists" and computer experts.

Aside from job descriptions, some have been jailed for things ranging from talking about Islam online to "charges related to Facebook use."

They have all been held in Iran's notorious chamber-of-horrors prison, Evin.

Also at Evin is Hossein Ronaghi Maleki. On December 13, 2009 he was arrested with his brother Hasan and held in solitary for a year, and has reportedly been severely beaten on several occasions to obtain a confession (among other tortures).

Born in 1986, he is a well-known Iranian blogger, IT enthusiast and strong advocate against cyber censorship.

Maleki (pictured at right) apparently did hands-on work to combat internet censorship and bypass filters for free speech - the kind of things the people at Tor do.

He is now facing new charges.

So when you hear me going off in this space about the necessity of pseudonyms in social networks, and real-world consequences for totalitarian censorship, and pornography being used as a foil for silencing speech and creating oppression...

Please do connect the dots.

Follow Free Malekpour on Twitter for updates. Main image of Iranian woman on a computer by Milkyo0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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