February 9, 2023

Social media users who go viral given harsh prison sentences in Iran

More than 500 young people did not know that they would be deprived of their right to life in one of the next 100 days when Mahsa Amini was arrested in Tehran on September 13.

On September 16, when Mahsa Amini died after three days in a coma, approximately 20,000 people living normal lives had no idea of the days in prison and detention they would soon endure.

But over more than 100 days of continuous protest, more than 500 Iranians were killed. More than 20 are currently on death row and four have been executed, and over 20,000 protesters remain in prison or are still awaiting a verdict or a determination of their status.

As a result of the protest movement that began on September 25, the Iranian government is now facing one of the biggest challenges it has faced in 44 years. However, unlike previous crackdowns, wherein the Islamic Republic heavily targeted political activists and students with heavy penalties, this time the judicial system seems to have issued many more severe sentences against citizens who have thus far been relatively unknown.

This dynamic is particularly apparent for citizens who have posted viral videos on social media, with many having received extraordinarily harsh sentences from the courts. This likely indicates that the Iranian state believes these videos have had a significant impact by encouraging the public and increasing courage in society to take to the streets and challenge the government.

Mahtab is one of them. In the days following Mahsa Amini’s death, protests had reached their peak. Mahtab and her younger sister were filmed and posted on social media. They sat without fear in front of guards and repression agents without hijab. They even sat on the same bench the forces were using to suppress protesters for a few minutes.

The video went viral and was shared hundreds of thousands of times on social networks, and both sisters were arrested shortly thereafter.

The two sisters were tried in December. A 20-year prison sentence has been imposed on Mehtab and a 15-year prison sentence has been imposed on her younger sister, though both are awaiting the outcome of an appeal court decision on their cases.

Astyage Haghighi and Amir Mohammad Ahmadi are also examples of protesters who received extremely strict sentences. As a result of their violent arrest after the release of their dance video in Azadi Square, the blogger couple have now been sentenced to ten and a half years in prison. According to the judicial system, 5 years of imprisonment will be imposed.

Under security pressure, their families were forced to remain silent after their arrest on November 10. Besides the prison sentence, Judge Salavati also sentenced each of them to a 2-year ban from using social networks and a 2-year ban from leaving the country. The right to have a lawyer has also been denied to Astyage and Amir Mohammad.

By publishing photos and videos of these two bloggers, some users in cyberspace were reminded of Shervin Hajipour’s poem of the song “Baraye” meaning “for” and used the phrase “for dance in the alley.” Hajipour himself was arrested and imprisoned for some time after the release of the viral song.

After the nationwide protests, reports emerged that some bloggers had been arrested for publishing dance videos. Dancer and parkour artist Morteza Ghadri, whose video of his protest dance in front of Azadi Tower was published in November, was arrested. Strangely, there is still no information about his condition or whether he has been released. It seems Mr. Ghadri’s family has also been forced to remain silent due to pressure and security threats.

Another person named “N-V.” also participated in the protests. Her video was shared thousands of times in the first week of demonstrations, with “N” facing the repression forces without a hijab or any other covering. The video, clearly taken from above and filmed by a neighbor overlooking Laleh Park, shows that “N” was surrounded by security forces and repression guards on three sides, but she did not react. The only thing she was doing was to hold her gaze, staring at these forces. After the video went viral, she was violently arrested.

N was an ordinary protester who stood in front of the repression forces and had no involvement in recording and reproducing the video. As an aside, this issue also distinguishes her case from that of other bloggers who published the video. Despite not having a lawyer in this case, the judge sentenced “N” to 10 years in prison.

There are a lot of cases similar to these in the judicial system of the Islamic Republic, and it seems that the repression forces are somehow punishing citizens more severely for their videos, which have inspired other protesters to become more courageous.

In most cases, citizens who have made a direct or indirect impact on social networks have received sentences of more than 5 years, even 10 and 15 years.

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