The security agents came for Hossein Ronaghi while he was in the middle of a live television interview in Tehran.
The Iranian blogger and human rights activist was talking to the host about the protests sweeping the nation when, suddenly, he heard a noise behind him and turned around. “They’re here, they’re here,” Ronaghi said with a jittery laugh, footage from the London-based Iran International channel shows.
At least 92 members of civil society — including activists, journalists and lawyers — have been arrested in the three weeks since demonstrations broke out over the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, according to the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI), a New York-based advocacy group. It is a well-honed strategy that Iran’s leaders have used for years to crush dissent and prevent protest movements from threatening their grip on power. Like Ronaghi, 37, many of those detained have been jailed before.
He managed to give the agents the slip the day of the interview but decided to turn himself in two days later, on Sept. 24, at the courthouse of Evin prison where he had been summoned. As soon as Ronaghi and his two lawyers arrived, security agents attacked and beat him. Families waiting for news of their loved ones outside the prison intervened and helped him get into the building.
But the situation did not improve inside the court: Within minutes, the prosecutor assigned to his case asked security guards to detain Ronaghi, as well as his lawyers. “That an accused person goes to the courthouse of his own will and they arrest him and his lawyers is unprecedented,” said Masoud Kazemi, a journalist and close friend of Ronaghi’s who knows his family.
Ronaghi called his mother two days later to confirm that he was in Evin and to deliver some grim news. “He said, ‘Mom I can’t talk now; they’ve broken my legs’ and then the connection was cut,” said Kazemi, 41, who also has served time in Evin, the country’s most notorious prison.
Dozens of people have been killed by security forces during the nationwide demonstrations, according to rights groups, and the government has sought to blame foreign powers for the uprising. But the protesters — almost all of them young, many of them women — appear undeterred and continue demonstrating in the streets.
“They want to put anyone who can become a voice of the protesters or play a role in how these protests develop behind bars right now,” said Hadi Ghaemi, the executive director of CHRI. “The protests are leaderless and grass-roots. The impact will be determined when there’s a collective voice. And these are the kind of people that can be that collective voice.”
Journalists also have been rounded up in the crackdown, with at least 29 detained since Amini’s death in mid-September, according to CHRI. Among those detained was Niloufar Hamedi, from the Shargh daily newspaper, who was one of the first to report on Amini’s case and is now in solitary confinement in Evin, according to a tweet from her lawyer.
These targeted arrests have a chilling effect, civil society members say, scaring others into silence. One newspaper journalist in Tehran contacted by The Washington Post said he had been asked not to discuss any recent issues with foreign media.
The arrests have had the same effect on lawyers, at least four of whom have been arrested since Amini’s death; that number includes Ronaghi’s two lawyers. Once news of the arrests spreads in the legal community, other lawyers become reluctant to represent protesters, according to Saeid Dehghan, a human rights lawyer who no longer lives in Iran.
After successive crackdowns on lawyers in Iran over the past 12 years, the number willing to take on human rights cases has dwindled from more than 50 to fewer than 10, according to Dehghan, 50, who left the country two years ago because of cases against him and now lives in Canada.
“We do not have an independent judicial system in Iran, and the judicial authorities handling political cases are completely under the control of the security agencies,” he said.
Before and after the arrest of someone from Iranian civil society, which is usually planned and differs from the indiscriminate arrests of protesters in the streets, authorities often cast a broad net, trying to intimidate or otherwise silence their family and friends.
On the day Ronaghi was arrested in Tehran, agents from the Ministry of Intelligence also detained his father in Malekan, a small town in northwest Iran, according to Kazemi, Ronaghi’s friend, who is in Turkey. They gave the father a clear message, Kazemi said: Do not publicize your son’s case or you will suffer the same fate. Ronaghi’s father was released a few hours later, shaken by the experience.
The pressure campaign did not stop there. On Thursday morning, security agents went to the office of Ronaghi’s friend Samaneh Mousavi, a dentist and former activist involved with women’s rights. When she arrived at the office, the security agents detained her on the spot, said Kazemi, who also knows Mousavi, 39, and has been in touch with her sister.
The Post had spoken with Samaneh Mousavi on Wednesday, 24 hours before her arrest. She had described an incident from the early hours of Sept. 24, when 11 plainclothes security agents came to her office looking for her in the middle of the night.
They were armed with a sledgehammer and a crowbar and showed the doorman pictures of Mousavi and Ronaghi. When asked in a telephone interview on Wednesday from Tehran if she feared for her safety, Mousavi replied, “Of course.”
Mousavi called her sister after her arrest Thursday and told her that she was being held at Evin and that her detention was related to Ronaghi, Kazemi said. No official charges have been announced yet for Ronaghi, his lawyers or Mousavi.
Kazemi said he thinks a lot about Ronaghi and about his own time in Evin, where he was jailed in 2018 and 2019 on charges of spreading propaganda against the system and insulting the supreme leader. He fears his friend and other detainees are facing the same grueling interrogations and psychological pressure that he endured in solitary confinement.
“It’s worrying,” Kazemi said. “It’s not clear what his health situation is, what they have planned for him and what kind of case they’ll create for him.”
(c) 2022, The Washington Post