FATAwatch: October – December 2020

FATA continued its crackdown on Iran’s online space, with political charges, corruption, and gambling being major themes this quarter.

The final quarter of 2020 proved to be a busy period for Iran’s Cyber Police (or FATA). Between the months of October to December 2020 FATA continued to make a number of arrests. Many of these related to political and security charges, although an increasing number of charges related to the creation and dissemination of “fake news”, with such charges being increasingly deployed to limit freedom of expression online and to silence activists and minority groups. 

Online betting and gambling also continued to be a target of FATA enforcement actions during this quarter. Some charges alleged that these websites were responsible for enabling fraud, whereas a number of arrests were also made for the promotion of gambling and betting sites on social media. 

Instagram, which remains accessible inside Iran, continued to be a major target for FATA. FATA continued to engage in cultural policing of the space, taking action against users who shared content deemed “inappropriate”, “immoral”, or which “promotes western lifestyles”. Such policing practices disproportionately target women, with charges  often linked to female influencers wearing or promoting clothing deemed inappropriate by state authorities. 

A number of heavy sentences were also handed down in a number of high-profile cases, the most significant being the execution of Ruhollah Zam, the noted dissident, journalist, and founder of the anti-government Telegram channel Amad News. Zam was executed in December following the loss of his appeal. The Instagram influencer known as “Sahar Tabar” – who gained popularity online for posting heavily altered photos of herself – was also sentenced to ten years in prison for her online activities, including for “blasphemy” and “promoting corruption”. 

Domestic platforms were not immune from scrutiny and prosecution; Mohammad Javad Shekuri Moghadam, the CEO and Founder of the popular Iranian video streaming platform Aparat was sentenced to at least ten years imprisonment in relation to an “inappropriate” video posted onto the platform the year before by the channel ‘Gelofen TV’. It was reported that a number of individuals associated with the ‘Gelofen TV’ channel were also sentenced to terms of eleven years. The decision has major implications for intermediary liability in Iran, and showcases authorities’ willingness to take action against domestic platforms that host content deemed illegal. As a consequence, we may see platforms such as Aparat engaging in more restrictive content moderation and censorship practices going forward. 

In this report, we focus on how Iran’s police forces and judiciary restricted and violated the fundamental rights of Iranians in online spaces between October and December 2020, as well as documenting other major incidents making national and global headlines. 

Security and Political Charges 

On 1 October the administrators for five Telegram channels operating in the city of Saqqez were summoned to court following complaints from Chia Salehi Babamiri, the now-former governor for Saqqez, who was removed from his post by the local council due to his poor performance. According to the International Federation of Journalists, the administrators for “Saqqez Rudaw”, “Vakavi”, “Saka Press” and “Porseman” were summoned on charges of “publishing fake news”. 

According to a report by HRANA on 3 October, Khadije Mehdipour was arrested by security forces in the city of Ilam and transferred to the city’s female prison “without providing a judicial order”. The report also said that, according to a source, Mehdipour was arrested for her “online activities and supporting the labour movement [in Iran], and spreading propaganda against the regime”. 

On 7 October HRANA reported that Peyman Farhangian, a poet and labour activist in the city of Kiashahr was sentenced to 38 years imprisonment. Among his charges were “organisation of protests inside the country using the Signal messaging app” in order to “disrupt the peace” inside the country. 

On 14 October FATA Police in Ardabil reported the arrest of two individuals for publishing “fake news” in relation to the country’s judicial authorities on Telegram, who were referred to the judiciary for legal proceedings. 

On 19 October security forces entered and searched the home of Nafiseh Melekiju. Following the confiscation of her personal items, she was summoned to court. According to the security forces this was due to online comments made by Melekiju. According to Melekiju’s lawyer, she was not presented with a warrant. 

According to “Journalism is Not a Crime” a number of sources have reported that three LGBTQI activists were arrested by security forces in October 2020, and later transferred to Evin prison. The activists were reported to have been active on Instagram, and have been named as Meisam Valipour, Meisam Dehghani, and Alireza Asadi. 

On 25 October, Beijan Rezaei was arrested and transferred to a detention centre in the city of Shiraz. According to HRANA, one of the reasons given for his arrest was his “online activities”. These included speaking out against the execution of the Iranian wrestler Navid Afkari. Afkari was the Iranian wrestler executed in September 2020 for allegedly killing a security guard during Iran’s 2017-18 protests

HRANA alo reported that on 28 October Homa Javadi was arrested by security forces in Tehran due to her online activities, specifically in a Telegram channel. She was transferred to Evin prison where her charges of “insulting the prophet of Islam and being in connection with anti-governemnt groups” were read out. She was subsequently transferred to the female wing of Evin prison after being set a bail appointment for 70,000million IRR (estimated 1,662.51 USD)

On 25 November Colonel Hossein Sadeghi, the Head of FATA for Semnan province announced that an individual had been identified and arrested for publishing “false information” online and on Telegram. According to Sadeghi, this consisted of publishing “insults towards government officials and disturbing public opinion”. 

On 12 December Ruhollah Zam, the administrator of the anti-government Telegram news channel Amad News, was executed. This came around a year after he was first arrested. A judiciary spokesperson announced on 8 December that the execution order for Zam had been upheld by the country’s Supreme Court. 

Earlier the thirteen charges held against Zam were held to be the equivalent to “spreading corruption on earth” by Judge Abolghasem Salavati, at the 15th branch of the Islamic Revolutionary Court in Tehran. 

On 22 December the Police Commander for the city of Ramian reported the arrest of a citizen in the city for “insulting holy sites” and “threatening to publish private photos from others” on social media platforms.  

Promotion of Corruption 

On 12 October the head of FATA for Mazandaran Province announced that the administrator of an Instagram page with 25,000 followers had been arrested for publishing “inappropriate photos” and promoting “tattoos and satan worship” as well as “deceiving young [audiences]”. Also in October, FATA arrested an individual in West Azerbaijan Province for featuring “young female models” wearing “inappropriate clothing” on their Instagram page. According to FATA, the page admin admitted to owning a clothing store and was attempting to attract customers through their page.

On 20 October the Head of FATA announced that an individual had been arrested in Ardabil Province for promoting and selling satellite equipment on various social media platforms, including Instagram and Telegram. 

On 25 October the founder and CEO of the Iranian video streaming platform Aparat was sentenced to at least ten years in prison, in relation to a video published on the platform at least a year prior. The video reportedly “asked children about how they were born”. It has also been reported that a number of individuals involved with the ‘Gelofen TV’ Aparat channel were sentenced to 11 years in prison for “promoting corruption” and publishing “vulgar content”. This incident raises serious concerns about the responsibilities and liabilities of domestic platforms hosting user-generated content, and could have major implications for Iranian platforms’ future content moderation and censorship practices. 

At the end of October FATA also confirmed the arrest of the administrator of a number of social media channels used for “matchmaking” or “[arranging] temporary marriages” in Mazandaran Province. 

Also in Mazandaran Province on 9 November, the administrator of an Instagram page with 85,000 followers was arrested for “promoting western culture” and publishing “vulgar content” which were used to “deceive” younger audiences.

On the same day, Colonel Pashaei, FATA’s Deputy for Social Affairs stated that “those who lead the promotion and encouragement of immoral online challenges have been identified and arrested, and have been referred for judicial proceedings”. He added that “any encouragement, promotion, or creation of [social media] channels, on the subject of participating in immoral, antisocial, and immodest [online] challenges is illegal” and that FATA will ensure that any such actions “have legal consequences”. Online “challenges” which often begin on social media channels and have gained major popularity in the country, some of which have in the past been a cause for concern around their harms to children. 

On 14 November Sameh Khorshad, the Head of FATA for Mazandaran Province confirmed that administrators for 84 social media pages “promoting and glorifying violence” had been arrested and referred to the province’s intelligence authorities. 

On 28 November the administrator of an unspecified social media channel posting “immoral” photos and “promoting corruption” was arrested by FATA in Golestan Province. 

On 10 December the Head of Security Police for Kermanshah Province, Hossein Heydari reported that a woman was arrested for appearing as a “model” in a video clip taken at Tekyeh Moaven Al-Molk palace, a historical attraction located in the province. According to Heydari the woman’s address was identified and she was arrested for “antisocial” behaviour. 

Also on 10 December it was reported that FATA Police had arrested the administrator of a Telegram channel used for “matchmaking” in Gilan Province.  

On 11 December the famous Iranian Instagram influencer, Fatemeh Khishvand – more widely known as “Sahar Tabar” – revealed that she had received a ten year prison sentence. She was arrested the previous year, when she gave a televised confession aired on Iranian state TV. She was charged with “promoting corruption”, “blasphemy, “taking part in corruption on earth”, and the “illegal acquisition of income”. She was 18 years old at the time of her arrest. According to her lawyer, she contracted COVID-19 while in prison. 

FATA in Kermanshah Province reported the arrest of an Instagram page administrator on 15 December, for posting “immodest” content. On 20 December FATA for Kohgiluyeh and Boyerahmad also reported the arrest of a number of people in relation to an Instagram page used for “matchmaking”. The individuals were arrested for posting “immodest” photos and content and committing “financial fraud”. Also in December, in North Khorasan Province, FATA  arrested the owner of an “antisocial” Instagram page with “over 25,600 followers”. 

On 28 December Sameh Khorshad, the Head of FATA for Mazandaran Province  confirmed that the administrators of 209 social media pages which posted “modelling photos featuring inappropriate clothing”. The following day on 29 December FATA in East Azerbaijan Province reported that the administrator of an Instagram page was arrested for posting “inappropriate” photos and “promoting corruption” online. 

Gambling and Betting 

Online gambling and betting continued to be an area of focus for FATA during this quarter. On 29 November the Head of FATA for Tehran reported that the administrator of a betting website had been arrested in connection with “financial crimes”. Also in Tehran on 8 December, FATA reported the arrest of the administrator of an Instagram page “with more than 150,000 followers” which promoted betting websites. 

On 19 December FATA in North Khorasan Province arrested two people who were accused of “promoting” betting websites on social media. A few days later on 23 December in Mazandaran Province FATA reported the arrest of the administrator of a “popular” gambling website with a “high financial turnover”. On the same day in the city of Semnan FATA reportedly arrested a brother and sister who committed “financial fraud” through betting sites. 

FATA Police in Ardabil Province reported the arrest of the “leader” of a gambling website on 27 December. They were accused of using social media to “promote” the site.  

Other Incidents 

On 23 October (warning: report contains graphic imagery) the city of Abadan’s Prosecutor warned that those individuals who filmed and distributed the “Abadani girl” video online would be arrested. The video shows an injured young woman, Bahareh Cheshmberah, being held down by two other women while a security guard places his foot on her torso and attempts to sexually assault her. Following widespread reaction on social media the security guard was arrested. However, following the release of the video Cheshmberah gave a televised “confession” stating that “foreign media” were spreading “rumours” about the incident. She has been charged with “forced entry, battery, and arson”. 

On 8 December the student activist Zia Nabavi posted letters sent from Tehran’s Deputy Prosecutor to heads of Tehran’s universities on his Twitter page. The letters asked university leaders to prevent “problematic activists” and those convicted on “security charges” from speaking at a planned Students’ Day event. 

On the same day, Rashid Mozaheri, goalkeeper for the popular Iranian football team Esteghlal was suspended from two matches for speaking out in support of Navid Afkari on his Instagram page. Mozaheri reportedly wrote “There are many of us, you will not have enough rope #DoNotExecute”.