On 28 May, Saba Azarpeik, an independent journalist and correspondent for the weekly newspaper Tejarat-e Farda, was arrested during a raid on the paper’s office in Tehran. Her family were only informed of the arrest on 2 June, when a Ministry of Intelligence official phoned to say that she was ‘well’. Since then, she has effectively been held incommunicado at an undisclosed location and has been allowed to contact her family only once. The authorities have apparently warned her family against speaking to the media if they wish her to be released early. She is still believed to be under interrogation.
Iran’s prisons are notoriously harsh and political prisoners are often at risk of torture during pre-trial detention. When Azarpeik, who also writers for Etemaad and other reformist publications, appeared in court on 21 and 22 July she was in extremely poor physical and psychological condition, having lost a lot of weight. There are reports that she has needed treatment for severe back pain and her mother claims that two of her vertebrae have been dislocated. PEN and other lobby groups are seriously concerned for her safety and wellbeing.
Today, Iran is comprised of many different factions vying for power. Politically motivated arrests are often carried out by security forces rather than at the behest of President Hassan Rouhani’s administration. Azarpeik has reportedly written a series of articles accusing the hardline movement of trying to undermine his government. On 20 May, following an anti-Rouhani rally calling itself ‘We Are Anxious’, Azarpeik published an interview with Mohammad Sadegh Kooshky, a University of Tehran professor supportive of the movement behind the rally. Kooshky, who also works for the Ministry of Intelligence as a media expert, responded angrily to the piece.
Azarpeik has been particularly outspoken in her Facebook postings and reported earlier this year that former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his close ally Rahim Mashaei had launched websites to attack their political opponents, weaken the government and sabotage the country’s nuclear negotiations. Since Azarpeik’s arrest, her Facebook page has become ‘unavailable’. She has also been highly critical of torture and detention conditions in Iran. She covered the case of Sattar Beheshti, a blogger who died in custody at the hands of the cyberpolice in 2012, and in April this year she talked to MPs about the raid on cell block 350 in Evin Prison, during which dozens of political prisoners were brutally attacked.
What is certain is that she is being silenced for her critical voice. Azarpeik was previously arrested in January 2013 as part of a media crackdown in advance of the presidential elections. She spent five weeks in Evin before being released on bail. Many of the journalists arrested at the same time as Azarpeik were charged with cooperating with ‘anti-revolutionary’ Persian-speaking media organisations outside the country. The authorities are particularly distrustful of the BBC’s Persian Service, which it accuses of working for foreign intelligence agencies.
There is some confusion as to the current charges against Azarpeik. On 17 June, the state-sanctioned Jahan news agency claimed that she had been arrested because of her alleged ties with foreign media and journalists. Another news outlet cited ‘enmity with the judiciary’ and ‘spreading false news about section 350 of Evin Prison’ as the reasons behind her detention. According to her lawyer, who was not allowed to be present at the July hearings, she faced charges of ‘spreading propaganda against the system’, possibly linked to her arrest in 2013. Amnesty believes that she faces the same charges in relation to her recent detention.
Azarpeik joins a raft of other writers and journalists detained in Iran for the peaceful expression of their opinions. These include cultural reporter Marzieh Rasouli, serving a two-year prison sentence on charges of ‘propaganda against the regime’ and ‘disrupting public order through participation in different assemblies and parties’; Reihaneh Tabatabei, a journalist for Shargh and Bahar, serving a six-month prison sentence for charges related to ‘publishing news regarding the Green Movement’; blogger Mehdi Khazali, arrested after writing a post that accused Ayatollah Mahdavi Kani of corruption and embezzlement; eleven staff members of Pat Shargh Govashir, a company that owns the popular Iranian technology news website Narenji and its sister sites, Nardebaan and Negahbaan, who have been sentenced to between one and eleven years in prison on charges of receiving training from and producing content for the BBC; and Iranian documentary filmmaker Mahnaz Mohammadi, who is serving a five-year prison sentence after being charged with propaganda and collusion against the state in cooperation with the BBC, despite claiming to have never worked with the corporation.
Readers might like to send appeals expressing serious concern for the wellbeing and safety of journalist Saba Azarpeik, who is currently held in an undisclosed location and is at risk of torture and other ill-treatment; urging that she be granted immediate access to her family and lawyer and be allowed any medical treatment she may require; and calling for her immediate and unconditional release, and that of all other writers currently detained in Iran in violation of their right to freedom of expression and assembly, in accordance with Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Iran is a state party.
Appeals should be sent to:
Leader of the Islamic Republic Ayatollah Sayed ‘Ali Khamenei
President Hassan Rouhani
Twitter: @HassanRouhani (English)