As Iranian cultural figures urge authorities to stop using force against protesting civilians, Tehran is resorting to arrests and the activation of old prison sentences to try to silence them.
It’s a well-rehearsed tactic of class warfare, observers say, aimed at preventing dissent from spreading from the marginalized masses to the country’s most urban and affluent.
“The upper middle class, the wealthy people, are not joining these protests, and I think the system has been very focused on preventing any connection to these protests and getting more popular support for them,” said Tara Sepehrifar, senior Iran researcher at Human Rights Watch (HRW). “Because as long as the protests are isolated, they [the authorities] can contain it and crush it.”
The muzzling of cultural icons whose voices carry significant weight among the public is key to authorities’ tactics, observers say, which have resulted in the arrest of some of Iran’s most recognizable filmmakers and activists in recent weeks. In some cases, they were imprisoned for sentences handed down more than ten years ago.
The effort gained momentum in late May amid ongoing anti-government protests in the southwestern city of Abadan sparked by the deadly collapse of a 10-story building. The protests, in which participants accused officials of corruption and called for regime change, quickly spread to other towns in the region and provoked a brutal response from security forces.
On May 29, more than 100 prominent filmmakers, actors, composers and others signed an open letter on social media using the hashtag #put_your_gun_down and asking that “all who have become agents of repression in the military lay down the weapons” in trying to quell the protests.
Authorities were quick to warn that the signatories could be arrested or banned from working in Iran, according to award-winning filmmaker Mohammad Rasulof, one of the key voices behind the letter.
The government followed through on its threat by putting Rasulof and fellow signatory and filmmaker Mostafa al-Ahmad behind bars on July 9. When hundreds of other cultural figures led by internationally acclaimed director and screenwriter Jafar Panahi issued a statement calling for their release, Panahi jailed two days later on a suspended sentence that dates back more than a decade.
“I think the fact that the system concluded that they didn’t want to tolerate their very minimal show of support – it’s extremely peaceful, there’s nothing in this letter that would be considered crossing red lines, they just asking people not to use violence against protesters – it’s just wanting to prevent any broader solidarity around these issues,” HRW’s Sepehrifar told RFE/RL by phone from the US.
Panahi and Rasulof, both former supporters of the banned opposition Green Movement, had previously been targeted by the authorities.
Panahi was arrested and quickly released in July 2009 after joining a public mourning for protesters killed during mass protests against the disputed election that won incumbent President Mahmud Ahmadinejad.
Panahi along with his family, friends and colleagues were subsequently arrested in early 2010. In December of that year he was found guilty of “propaganda against the system” in connection with several films he made and considered by the authorities to be critical of the system. clerical establishment and received a six-year sentence.
He was conditionally released after two months, but was banned from making films, traveling abroad or conducting interviews with foreign or domestic media. Since then, the activation of his suspended prison sentence has been hanging over his head.
His fears materialized on July 11, when judiciary spokesman Masud Setayeshi announced that Panahi – who had been re-arrested after going to the prosecutor’s office to inquire about Rasulof and al-Ahmad – had been sent to the notorious Evin prison in Tehran to begin serving his sentence. phrasing.
Panahi’s wife, Tahereh Saeedi, told RFE/RL’s Radio Farda after his detention that he had been kept in limbo for years, prevented from taking trips or making films as he wanted, and that she considered her last imprisonment a “hostage taking.”
“Jafar did nothing wrong,” she said, adding that his lawyers were working to prove he had committed no crime. “Every citizen has rights. Jail is not the way. It cannot be that anyone who utters a word is imprisoned.”
Rasulof, who was arrested along with Panahi in 2010 while working on the set of a green movement film, was later sentenced to a reduced six-year prison term, and banned from making films and from leaving Iran.
In 2020 he was again sentenced to prison for ‘propaganda against the system’ and banned from making more films but did not turn himself in due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and tried to appeal of the verdict.
Despite restrictions on their work, Panahi and Rasulof’s films are significant overseas, and their efforts to expose social issues in Iran have made them one of the country’s most recognizable filmmakers.
They are not the only film workers and cultural figures who have come under intense scrutiny in Iran and whose fate has been acknowledged abroad.
In expressing its solidarity and anger at the arrests of Panahi, Rasulof and al-Ahmad, a collective of the French film community has also criticized the arrests in May by documentarians Firuzeh Khosrovani and Mina Keshavarz, which was described as the result of a “free creation intimidation technique” by a “fearful regime”.
In addition, the collective notes the arrest the same month of fashion photographer Reihane Taravati and raids conducted against dozens of other directors and producers.
During the last week of June, several journalists and activists were also summoned or arrested by the authorities, including Vida Rabani, Ahmad Reza Haeri, Amir Salar Davudi and Masud Bastani.
On 20 July, prominent lawyer and human rights activist Mohammad Ali Dadkhah was transferred to Evin Prison to serve an eight-year prison sentence handed down in 2011 for allegedly attempting to overthrow Iran’s ruling Islamic system. Dadkhah had been on parole since 2013.
HRW’s Sepehrifar noted that since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, there has been enormous public pressure on cultural and sports figures to take a stand in defense of social issues, and they have consistently used their platforms to respond to the ‘call.
“They have already been scrutinized and prosecuted for speaking out for social and political reform before,” Sepehrifar said, and the recent spate of arrests “is a continuation of that.”
In a year that has been marked by a surge in the labor movement, teacher strikes and protests against government corruption, water shortages and rising costs of living and food, Authorities “are working to ensure that there is no organized support for dissent, which would be much harder to crush,” she said.
It can also mean that the government can invoke, if necessary, old convictions hanging over the heads of influential figures.
“There are different levels of pressure, and it’s like a toolbox to use depending on the situation,” Sepehrifar said. “Having a permanent prison sentence and being outside of prison can be one of the most effective ways to ask someone for silence, as it can be implemented at any time.”