x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

'Blogfather's' silence stokes fears

Known for his opinionated writings that inspired others to keep online diaries, the Iranian Hossein Derakhshan has not been heard from for months.

When Iran's best-known and most controversial blogger returned to his homeland after several years in the West, his fans and critics were eager to read about his newly minted impressions of the Islamic republic. Hossein Derakhshan, nicknamed "the Blogfather", wrote that he "LOVES living in Tehran again", had enjoyed using the Metro, browsing in bookshops and meeting old friends. The good-looking, 33-year-old techno-wizard was frustrated by slow internet connections, but "generally impressed" with Iran, where he planned to settle and work. But after just two postings his normally irrepressible blog, Editor: Myself (www.hoder.com/weblog), fell ominously silent at the end of October.

On Nov 17, a conservative website supposedly close to Tehran's intelligence community claimed that he was under interrogation and had "admitted" to spying for Israel during initial questioning. His family at first refused to talk but have now confirmed he was arrested on Nov 1. They have spoken to Mr Derakhshan by phone four times since then - on each occasion in a call lasting less than a minute - but have heard nothing from him since Nov 13 and are becoming worried, a family friend told Canada's Globe and Mail. Iranian officials have refused to confirm or deny reports of Mr Derakhshan's arrest but they will find it increasingly hard to stonewall as his case becomes more high profile and risks igniting a diplomatic spat.

His plight was raised at a London press conference on Monday by Shirin Ebadi, Iran's Nobel peace laureate. "All I can say is that I very much hope that he will be released soon, because prison is not a place for journalists and for bloggers," she said. Canada is also pressing Iran for information. Mr Derakhshan spent several years in Canada and has Canadian citizenship. Mr Derakhshan made a highly publicised trip to Israel in 2006 to foster understanding between the Iranian and the Jewish people. Iran forbids contact with Israel, but Mr Derakhshan travelled on his Canadian passport, writing at the time: "I'm a citizen of Canada and I have the right to visit any country I want."

He was aware, however, that he could be storing up trouble. "This might mean that I won't be able to go back to Iran for a long time, since Iran doesn't recognise Israel, has no diplomatic relations with it and apparently considers travelling there illegal," he wrote. Fellow bloggers scoff at the notion that the Iranian authorities, however paranoid, could suspect Mr Derakhshan of spying for Israel. His visit to the Jewish state was hardly cloak-and-dagger - he splashed it all over the blogosphere and was interviewed by curious Israeli newspapers.

Mr Derakhshan's blog entries make clear he was an Iranian patriot who sometimes criticised the regime but also defended it, particularly in recent months. He never opposed the idea of an Islamic republic and declared he would return to defend his homeland if the US ever attacked: he could never sit by and watch the US make "a Baghdad out of Tehran". Israeli commentators note that Mr Derakhshan's blog recently had become "vehemently anti-Israeli". Also, disillusioned with Iran's reformist leaders he once championed, he started to show admiration for Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. When the New York Sun called for Mr Ahmadinejad to be kidnapped to scare him off visiting the city for the UN General Assembly in September, Mr Derakhshan chortled: "They don't know how big this man's ***** are." The son of a rug manufacturer, Mr Derakhshan moved to Toronto in 2000 with his Iranian-Canadian wife from whom he has since split, after reformist newspapers he wrote for were shut down by hardline opponents of Seyyed Mohammed Khatami, the former president. He began blogging in Farsi and English and devised a simple but pioneering way to show Persian letters and characters on the internet. His protocol enabled Iran to become one of the world's most prolific blogging nations, with 65,000 online diarists. Since emigrating, Mr Derakhshan had returned to Iran only once, visiting to cover the 2005 presidential elections that swept Mr Ahmadinejad to power. The "Blogfather" was prevented briefly from leaving Iran and interrogated by police. They warned him that he was tackling too many taboo subjects and scolded him for helping Iranians to sidestep internet censorship. He was allowed to leave after signing an apology. Those rallying to support him now include Iranian human rights activists that Mr Derakhshan had criticised robustly, arguing that they served US interests more than those of Iranians. One of those "maligned" by Mr Derakhshan is Hadi Ghaemi, the co-ordinator for the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran. His group declared in a statement of support for Mr Derakhshan: "In this, as in many other cases, [the Iranian] authorities are exercising raw power over citizens with no explanation, no accountability and no transparency." mtheodoulou@thenational.ae