Blogger’s death in Iran offers look into government’s cyber patrols
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – In his last blog entry, activist Sattar Beheshti wrote that Iranian authorities had given him an ultimatum: Either stop posting his “big mouth” attacks against the ruling system or tell his mother that she will soon be in mourning.
“We will tear down your cruel cage,” Beheshti typed on Oct. 29 before signing off.
A day later he was arrested. Within a week, his family had collected his body. They began calls for an investigation that have been echoed by Washington, European allies and rights groups.
Arrests of activists and claims of abuse in detention are commonplace in Iran, but deaths behind bars are much rarer. Iran’s judiciary responded to the growing pressure and authorized an investigation. It claims three of Beheshti’s interrogators have been arrested while post-mortem reports are studied.
But while the specific circumstances of Beheshti’s death may be given a public reckoning, the more far-reaching aspect of the case — Iran’s rapidly growing corps of Web watchers — may remain in the shadows, as well as their motives in targeting an obscure blogger whose site was actively followed by more than a few dozen viewers.
The 35-year-old Beheshti apparently fell under the custody of Iran’s cyber police, created last year with a wide mandate to crush Web dissent. The powers displayed in the case — including questioning Beheshti outside the regular justice system — suggests a level of autonomy and authority that could bring far more aggressive measures against Web activists.
“There’s no question that the Internet is seen by Iran’s rulers as a threat and something that needs to be tightly controlled,” said Theodore Karasik, a regional security expert at the Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis. “Iran is investing serious resources on this front.”
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei often refers to the need for stronger measures in the “soft war” playing out in cyberspace with the West and opposition groups. Iran also claims its technicians are working on a self-contained Internet that would somehow give authorities the ability to filter content.
“I can call you an artist,” Beheshti wrote in reference to Khamenei, “in the art of killing. Believe me, I consider you an artist.”
His last post he described alleged threats from authorities to close down the site or face being “shut up with no trace.”
“They say I talk too much,” he joked darkly.
“The Islamic Republic is putting immense pressure on activists and independent Iranians,” he added, “telling them they have no rights to express their opinions about the affairs in the country; threatening them in various ways from arrest to torture … to death in order to intimidate them.
“Don’t intimidate us with your threats as there is no fear in our hearts.”