x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Blogger trod a fine line between life and death in Iran

Friend urged Iranian Sattar Beheshti who died in custody to quit online diary critical of country's leaders but he was determined to carry on writing.

Blogger Sattar Beheshti with his mother in a photo from his Facebook page.
Blogger Sattar Beheshti with his mother in a photo from his Facebook page.

Days before Sattar Beheshti was hauled away by Iran's cyber police and allegedly tortured to death, a friend urged him to close his taboo Facebook account and stop blogging. Anguished but determined, he replied: "I can't. I'll go crazy if I don't write."

Beheshti, an outspoken 35-year-old factory worker, knew the dangers of keeping a web diary critical of the Iranian leadership, which he called "My Life for My Iran".

Dozens of bloggers and journalists have been arrested amid crackdowns in Iran in recent years.

Beheshti was also keenly aware of his responsibilities to his apolitical family, who live in a poor district 25 kilometres south-west of Tehran. As the family's breadwinner, he spent much of his income on medication for his elderly mother.

In his last blog, hours before he was arrested at his mother's house on October 30 on charges of "actions against national security on social networks and Facebook", he wrote: "They sent me a message saying, 'Tell your mother she will soon be wearing black because you don't shut your big mouth'."

But he vowed: "I will not keep silent even if death looms". Defiantly, he added: "Stop your injustice so I will be able to stop denouncing it … The laws of your regime can't even be found in the jungle."

Within days his mother was in black when her son's broken and bloodied body was returned for burial last Thursday where security men mingled with mourners, confiscating their mobile phones and videotaping proceedings.

According to a source close to the family, there was a large dent in Beheshti's head and his face was swollen. When his shroud was untied, "blood spattered" from the side of his right knee, the source told The International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, a New York-headquartered organisation.

News of his death raced across Iranian opposition news websites, caused uproar in western capitals and was condemned by human-rights groups, all demanding an immediate investigation.

On Friday, the United States state department spokeswoman, Victoria Nuland, demanded the Iranian government "investigate this murder, hold accountable those responsible for Beheshti's arrest, torture and killing, and cease harassment of Beheshti's family".

Neither a well-known blogger nor a prominent activist, Beheshti had suddenly made headlines, he and became a cause celebre on Iranian social networking sites.

The uproar finally became too much for the Iranian authorities to ignore. On Sunday, they broke their silence about his death when parliament announced its committee on national security and foreign policy would launch an immediate and decisive inquiry.

It was a rare, but not unprecedented, case of the Iranian authorities taking up allegations of human-rights abuses first raised internationally. In the past such allegations have often been dismissed as politically motivated foreign propaganda.

Last night there were reports from Tehran that three people had been arrested in connection with Beheshti's death. But senior officials gave conflicting accounts about the case.

Iran's state prosecutor, Gholam Hossein Mohseni Ejei, said wounds were found in five places on the blogger's body. But the head of parliament's national security committee, Alaeddin Boroujerdi, said "preliminary information" showed no signs of beatings on Beheshti's body.

On Sunday, one conservative politician, Ahmad Tavakoli, rebuked the country's judiciary for failing to address the issue earlier. "I recommend that instead of dealing harshly with bloggers, you go after corrupt officials," he said in an open session of parliament on Sunday broadcast on state radio.

The regime's embarrassment had been compounded by calls from several conservative Iranian bloggers loyal to Tehran's ruling system, who insisted the authorities break their silence over his death.

The episode was "inciting public opinion against the system" and delighting allegedly anti-Iranian outlets such as the BBC and the Voice of America, a conservative blogger, Ehsan Rastegar, wrote.

Fellow inmates at Tehran's Evin prison told Iran's opposition Kalame website that Beheshti had been repeatedly beaten in Ward 305, which is controlled by the Revolutionary Guards and where many political prisoners are held.

His body "looked like it had been crushed" after one interrogation, one prisoner said.

Kalame reported it had received a letter from Beheshti dated October 31 in which he wrote he had been subjected to "physical and verbal abuse" during interrogations. "I declare that any confessions taken from me were extracted under torture," his letter said.

In his blog, Beheshti questioned why Iran was spending money supporting groups such as Hizbollah while millions of Iranians were struggling to make ends meet.

State-run media, he added, also lambast international inaction over the suffering of those in Palestine and Bahrain, but "don't say a single word about the disastrous conditions of our own people".

Though silenced and under house arrest, Beheshti's family have made clear through contacts that they do not want his violent death to be in vain. It should be some comfort to them that his death has put a global spotlight on the human-rights abuses in Iran that his blog documented.

mtheodoulou@thenational.ae