The severity of the nearly 20-year jail sentence handed down to veteran Iranian blogger Hossein Derakhshan, left, has shocked many exiled Iranian journalists and bloggers with whom I've spoken. It's also reinforced their belief that the best way to help jailed colleagues is not through quiet diplomacy but by making a lot of noise.
Derakhshan's case made headlines last month when human rights groups reported that prosecutors were seeking the death penalty for the writer, dubbed the "blogfather" of Farsi blogging, on a raft of antistate charges. In the end, a Revolutionary Court sentenced the Iranian-Canadian dual national to nineteen and a half years in prison. His family and lawyer learned of the verdict through the news media.
Derakhshan's case does not fit the mold of oppressed Iranian online journalists and bloggers. He talked openly in his blog about his visits to Israel and publicly criticized the government in Tehran and later the reformist movement.
"Hossein has traveled to Israel and for years he was a serious critic of the Islamic Republic while out of the country. But three years ago, he changed sides and become a fan and believer of the current government and supported (President) Mahmoud Ahmadinejad," said exile Iranian journalist Omid Memarian.
In 2008, Derakhshan returned to Tehran under circumstances that are still not fully explained.
"He was rumored to be invited by people close to President Ahmadinejad and Iran's Ministry of Intelligence back to Iran. They guaranteed his safety," said Newsweek correspondent Maziar Bahari. "In fact I saw him by chance a month before his return to Iran in London, and when he told me that he was going to Iran, I told him that he must be crazy and it's not going to be safe for him," Bahari said.
"But he said 'some people' promised him that he would be safe. But a few days after his return to Iran, Hossein was arrested by the Revolutionary Guards who believed that the Ministry of Intelligence was in the hands of the reformists. By arresting Hossein, the Guards wanted to say that they were the ones who were in charge of the security of the country and not Ahmadinejad's government."
Enmeshed in this political power struggle, Derakhshan just disappeared and for a long time human rights groups could not even confirm where he was being held. He was eventually tracked down to Tehran's Evin Prison but news was scarce, and friends and family were largely quiet about the case.
"I think Derakhshan's family thought that backdoor conversations and negotiations would work for Hossein. It didn't. I think they should have sued the Islamic Republic in Canada," said exiled cartoonist and blogger Nikahang Kowsar.
Some bloggers ascribe the Derakhshan family's silence to simple threats and intimidation by the Revolutionary Guards. Whatever the reasons, there was no sustained campaign to free him. The government of Canada also took a "quiet diplomacy" approach. This has drawn criticism from some exiles. "They haven't worked on this case ... as they did for the case of Zahra Kazemi," said Memarian, referring to the Canadian-Iranian photojournalist who was killed in prison in 2003. Derakhshan's friend, prominent U.S. blogger Ethan Zuckerman, has urged readers to write to Canada's Minister of Foreign Affairs, Lawrence Cannon, to demand greater government action. A spokesperson for Cannon declined to comment but referred me to the minister's statement: "Since learning of Hossein Derakhshan's arrest in November 2008, Canadian government officials have been in contact with Iranian authorities, including by diplomatic note and through high-level meetings, to seek consular access. We will continue to press the Iranian authorities on Mr. Derakhshan's behalf and urge Iran to fully respect all of its human rights obligations, both in law and in practice," Cannon said.
All the exiles I consulted acknowledged that the wishes of the family of an imprisoned journalist had to be taken into consideration. But they were all adamant that the only way to secure the release of an imprisoned colleague was through sustained public pressure, both inside and outside Iran.
"No one is helped by silence," said Bahari. "Families, friends, employers, colleagues, and governments should be always vocal about an imprisoned journalist except in very special situations."
U.S. academic Haleh Esfandiari, who was jailed in Evin, agrees. "One has to be guided by the family in Iran, but one has to go public and bring a lot of pressure. ... Within a couple of hours of my arrest, Lee Hamilton and my husband spoke at a press conference. And then for 105 days they didn't stop."
In this spirit, CPJ has joined with other press freedom groups in writing today to Ayatollah Sadegh Larijani, the head of Iran's judiciary, calling for Derakhshan's release. There is also a separate petition by internetsansfrontieres that readers can sign.