x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Popular Iranian blogger may face death penalty

Family of jailed Hossein Derakhshan hopes that reporters will take advantage of Ahmadinejad's presence at United Nations to discuss blogger's fate.

As one of Iran's most popular bloggers, Hossein Derakhshan knew he was a controversial figure and had expected to be questioned by the authorities when he returned to his homeland two years ago after a lengthy spell in the West.

But the dual Iranian-Canadian citizen, nicknamed the "Blogfather", never imagined he would be arrested within weeks of his arrival and thrown into a solitary confinement cell in Tehran's Evin prison. The Iranian government had guaranteed his safety, his friends and family said. Now it has emerged that Derakhshan, 35, has been convicted on a host of charges after a closed-door trial that began in June - and the hardline prosecutor has called for the death penalty.

The equally hardline judge presiding over the case, Abolghasem Salavati, has yet to pronounce sentence. Until this week, the jailed blogger's family had refused to speak to the media, apparently hoping it would encourage a lighter sentence. Now, fearing the worst, they have raised the alarm. "The prosecutor has asked for the severest sentence possible to punish Hossein and make an example of him," his mother, Ozra Kiarashpour, said in an interview on Tuesday with Kamtarin, a popular blog by an anonymous dissident journalist. "We can't do anything about the judge's ruling except to pray ? ".

Her son is suffering from depression and sleeps most of the day, she said, adding that her father has suffered severe heart problems since the ordeal began. Derakhshan's family hopes that reporters will take advantage of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's presence in New York to quiz him about the jailed blogger's fate, Cyrus Farivar, an Iranian-American journalist, who is in touch with Derakhshan's family, said in an interview.

The Iranian president, who is due to address the UN General Assembly today, has proclaimed Iran's respect for human rights and freedoms during a media blitz in New York this week. Human-rights activists have accused him of hypocrisy and cynicism. As Mr Ahmadinejad arrived in the United States on Sunday, it was reported from Tehran that a women's-rights activist, Shiva Nazar-Ahari, was sentenced to six years in jail on charges including "warring against God". She has denied all charges and plans to appeal.

There were also reports yesterday that an Iranian journalist and human-rights activist, Emad Baghi, had been "re-sentenced" and must now serve seven years in prison - instead of the six years imposed by Mr Salavati last month. Derakhshan was charged with "collaborating with enemy states, creating propaganda against the Islamic regime, insulting religious sanctity and creating propaganda for anti-revolutionary groups", according to reports from Iran.

His prosecutor, Jafari Dowlatabadi, probably aims to intimidate other politically active bloggers by making an example of him, analysts said. But they doubt that Derakhshan will be executed even if the death sentence is passed. "They [the authorities] already have too much on their hands with international protests against the stoning sentence against Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani," said an analyst in Tehran, who declined to be named. "Even if the judge passes a death sentence, it may be reduced on appeal."

Clearly sensitive to international pressure, Mr Ahmadinejad denied on Sunday that Ms Ashtiani, a widow convicted of adultery, was ever sentenced to death by stoning. Her sentence has been suspended but it has not been commuted. Derakhshan was given his "Blogfather" sobriquet after he 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.

But the good-looking techno-wizard also made headlines as a daring online diarist. He 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 he travelled on his Canadian passport. Shortly after his arrest on November 1, 2008, a hardline Iranian news website accused him of spying for Israel. But he was not officially charged with espionage.

His visit to Israel was hardly cloak-and-dagger: he splashed it all over the blogosphere and was interviewed by Israeli newspapers. Before his arrest, Derakhshan's blog entries made clear he was an Iranian patriot who sometimes criticised the regime but also defended it, particularly in the months before he returned to Iran. He never opposed the idea of an Islamic republic and declared he would 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 also noted that his blog entries had become "vehemently anti-Israeli". And, disillusioned with Iran's reformist leaders he once championed, Derakhshan had started to show admiration for Mr Ahmadinejad. His mother told the Kamtarin blog: "I want to ask why they [the Iranian authorities] are making an example of Hossein rather than making a role model of him. He is someone who repented and returned to serve his country."

@Email:mtheodoulou@thenational.ae