“Legal” Harshness

As a follow up to our post on the draft Iranian law that would expand the number of crimes that can be punished by death, including forming Web sites or blogs that promote prostitution or apostasy, we were quite concerned to see that the bill passed on the first reading by a vote of 180 to 29, with 10 abstentions. While a number of bloggers have focused on the letter of the law, some Iranians seem much more concerned with the spirit of the law and how it will be applied. The quite legitimate concern of online free speech advocates is that the Iranian regime will use the overly broad and poorly defined terms like “Fesad and Fahsha” (corruption and prostitution) to prosecute and even put to death political opponents.
People guilty of these crimes will be considered “Mofsed o fel alrz” (corrupters on Earth) and “Mohareb” (a person that fights an Islamic government). According to Islamic Shari’a , the punishment could be as high as the death penalty. Once (and if) the legislation is approved in the council, there will be committees formed in Tehran and in the centers of all other states which will monitor the execution of this law. Furthermore, the media is to cooperate with the committees (involved and formed) to promote the objectives of this law.

The UN Declaration of Human Rights‘ Article grants us all “the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” When bills such as the above are proposed, we all shiver and murmur that this is the feared apokalupsis eschaton!

Unfortunately, Iran’s position with respect to bloggers is not unique. As Human Rights Watch reports, past prosecutions of bloggers around the world have often used a number of overly broad and poorly defined terms to prosecute those that upset the regime. In the past, it has often been on “national security” grounds. For example:

• (February 2005, Iran) The Iranian government sentenced blogger Arash Cigarchi to 14 years in prison for expressing his opinions on the Internet and in the international press. Charges brought against him included espionage, “aiding and abating hostile governments and opposition groups,” endangering national security and insulting Iran’s leaders.

• (December 2006, Iran) Branch 1059 of Tehran’s Judiciary commenced a trial against Roozbeh Mirebrahimi, Shahram Rafizadeh, Omid Memarian, and Javad Gholam Tamimi, on charges of “participation in formation of groups to disturb national security,” “propaganda against the state,” “dissemination of disinformation to disturb public opinion by writing articles for newspapers and illegal internet sites,” and “interviews with foreign radio broadcasts.”

• (August 2007, Russia) Blogger Savva Terentyev was arrested and sentenced to one year probation for suggesting his local police should be set on fire in the town square(1).

• (June 2007, Syria) Human Rights Watch has documented at least five cases since 2005 in which critics of the government were arrested because of posting or emailing critical comments or information. In particular, Tarek Biasi was arrested because he “went online and insulted security services.” He was held incommunicado by the authorities and then sentenced to three years imprisonment for “diminishing national feeling” and “weakening the national ethos.”

• (March 2008, Egypt) Blogger al-Sharqawi and 16 other bloggers (including bloggers Wa’il Abbas and `Ala’ Seif al-Islam), journalists and activists were cited as being responsible for “spreading false news” that could harm Egypt’s image abroad and organizing demonstrations. l-Sharqawi told Human Rights Watch that his captors beat him for hours and then raped him.

• (February 2007, Egypt) Blogger Abdel Nabil Suleiman (“Kareem Amer”) was sentenced to four years in prison for “incitement to hatred of Islam” on his blog and for insulting Mubarak(2). It’s interesting to note that these charges stem from Article 102(bis) of the Egyption Penal Code which allows for the detention of “whoever deliberately diffuses news, information/data, or false or tendentious rumors, or propagates exciting publicity, if this is liable to disturb public security, spread horror among the people, or cause harm or damage to the public interest”, Article 176 of the Penal Code which allows for the imprisonment of “whoever instigates…discrimination against one of the people’s sects because of race, origin, language, or belief, if such instigation is liable to disturb public order”, and Article 179 that allows for the detention of “whoever affronts the President of the Republic.” (3)

Although Article 19(3) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) allows restriction of expression in the interest of “the rights or reputations of others, the protection of national security or of public order, or of public health or morals”, capricious, harsh punishments are not justified. As Hamid Tehrani suggests on Global Voices, certain regimes have and will continue to stifle online opposition, and bills such as the above will only make it possible to “legally execute” political opponents.

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