Belgium’s invitation to Alireza Zakani, Tehran’s mayor and the former chief of the paramilitary Student Basij Organization, to attend a mayors’ conference in June triggered a political controversy in Belgium that led to the resignation of the Brussels' state secretary for urbanism and to calls for the Belgian foreign minister to step down for issuing a visa to Zakani. Now, with the news that relatives of two protesters against Zakani’s visit have been arrested and harassed in Iran, the controversy has entered a new phase.
During the Brussel protests against Zakani’s visit, Abdolmotahar Mohammad-Khani, Zakani’s spokesman and head of Tehran Municipality's Center for Communication and International Affairs, filmed the demonstrators. After Zakani and his entourage returned to Tehran, relatives of a number of protesters were interrogated and harassed by security agents in Iran. On Twitter, Mohammad-Khani not only explicitly wrote about taking pictures of protesters, but he also implicitly confirmed that their family members were interrogated.
This is just one episode in the history of the Islamic Republic’s vast and ongoing operations to pressure, suppress and silence the opposition beyond Iranian borders. These actions harm and endanger freedom of expression in democratic countries but, unfortunately, governments there have not done much, if anything, to prevent or to counter these threats.
Direct and Indirect Operations by the Islamic Republic Outside Its Borders
Since its inception in 1979, the Islamic Republic has used both direct and indirect methods to suppress and silence the opposition beyond its borders. In the 1980s and 1990s, it repeatedly assassinated its opponents abroad. These assassinations and other actions singled out the Islamic Republic as the biggest supporter of terrorism in the international arena, something the country has repeatedly paid a price for in political, economic and diplomatic terms.
These costs rose much higher after 9/11 when the global determination for fighting against Islamist terrorism hardened and heightened vigilance of Western intelligence agencies made such assassinations more difficult. Fearing more draconian responses by the West and especially by the United States, the Islamic Republic limited, to some extent, the score of these attacks or relied more on proxies and mercenaries such as criminal gangs to carry them out.
While direct suppression of the opposition in other countries was becoming more costly and difficult, the Islamic Republic resorted to other tools to crush its opponents, including harassing the families of journalists, members of the opposition and human rights activists living in foreign countries, along with propaganda, libel, psychological warfare and the abuse of legal means, both domestic or international. These methods can be described as “indirect censorship,” meaning that instead of silencing a person directly, he or she is either silenced through intermediaries or is indirectly forced into silence and self-censorship.
Harassing and Torturing Family Members
One of the most common methods used to put pressure on Iranian expatriates is to harass, arrest and torture their family members in Iran. The most recent example is the arrest of the mother of two men who, during the Brussels protests, were filmed by a Tehran municipality official who was accompanying Zakani during his visit.
Also, the son and the brother of Fariba Balouch, a renowned human rights activist who resides in London, were recently arrested in Iran. Security officers told her, “You know well why the two have been arrested. It’s because of the activities of your daughter Fariba. She is working against the regime.” The security agents bluntly said that they would release the two when she stops her activities.
In late May, Sajjad Shahrabi, brother of Shima Shahrabi, editor-in-chief of IranWire’s Persian-language website, was arrested in yet another attempt to silence an independent media outlet that covers events in Iran.
According to a study that was published in October 2017, family members of at least 85 employees of BBC Persian, out of 96, have been interrogated by intelligence and security agencies.
After the younger sister of BBC Persian journalist Saeedeh Hashemi was arrested and taken to Tehran’s Evin Prison, she received a message via Skype from her sister: “The message said, ‘Hello sister, how are you?’ I was shocked. ‘Where are you?’ I asked? ‘I am in Evin Prison,’ she answered. ‘I am with my interrogators and these gentlemen want to talk to you.’”
Hashemi’s sister spent 17 days in solitary confinement. During this time, she spoke with her sister, and, obviously pressured by her interrogators, asked her to “snoop” for the Iranian authorities. “From the very start it was clear that they wanted to release my sister in exchange for information about how things work at the BBC, [and for] personal information about my colleagues and my work, my relationships with others, salaries and so on,” she says. “It was clear that they wanted me to spy for them. ‘You have taken my sister hostage so that I would spy for you?’ I told them. ‘I am not going to do it.’”
Negin Shiraghaei, another BBC Persian journalist, had a similar experience. “The pressures started two years after I joined BBC Persian,” she says. “Throughout these six years many things happened. They repeatedly summoned my father, who had cancer and was going through chemotherapy.” The security agents forced her brother to call her and convince her to meet them in a third country such as Armenia or Indonesia. They even threatened her that they would publish naked photos of her and post fake stories about her sex life if she did not cooperate.
These are just samples of many cases of harassment of the families of expatriate Iranian journalists and human rights activists by the Islamic Republic. Unfortunately, the responses by Western governments follow a pattern as well of inaction, silence and appeasement toward the Islamic Republic.
However, what happened to the family of the two Belgian-Iranian protesters is to a large degree different: this time, the government of Belgium bears some responsibility for the harassment of these two protesters’ families. The Belgian government played an indirect role because it invited the Iranian delegation to Brussels and failed to prevent an official member of the delegation from filming the protesters. It could even lay the Belgian government open to charges of neglecting or violating human rights.
In the framework of international and European human rights conventions, states have three obligations: respect, protect and fulfill.
The obligation to respect means that states must refrain from interfering with or curtailing the enjoyment of human rights. For example, the government must respect the right to freedom of gatherings and must not prevent peaceful protests.
The obligation to protect requires the states to protect individuals and groups against human rights abuses from other parties. These “other parties” include other citizens and foreign governments. For instance, the Belgian government is obligated to prevent third parties or foreign governments from obstructing peaceful protests on Belgian soil.
The obligation to fulfill means that states must take positive action to facilitate the enjoyment of basic human rights. These “positive actions” include legal, administrative and budgetary measures. For example, the government must ensure that minorities and native people can enjoy equal opportunities in education.
The government must prevent putting individuals in threatening situations where their rights are likely to be violated. That is why governments cannot extradite individuals to countries where they are likely to be mistreated and tortured. To avoid that, governments must exercise “due diligence,” meaning that they must take reasonable steps beforehand to prevent possible violations of human rights by other governments or third parties, as a result of their inaction or actions.
But, by allowing a member of an Iranian delegation to film protesters and especially by failing to foresee the consequence, the Belgian government has placed the protesters and their families in danger of harassment, arrest and torture. Of course, this assertion is valid if we assume that the Belgian government was aware that violations of human rights were likely to occur or it had good reasons to believe so. Nevertheless, it was in no way difficult to predict what would happen if somebody like Zakani was invited to visit the country.
Zakani was a commander of the paramilitary Student Basij Organization during the brutal crackdown on student protests on July 9, 1999. More importantly, he later led this organization which was sanctioned in May 2023 for acting as the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ “violent enforcers on university campuses where students staged protests in the fall of 2022, and were subsequently the victims of repression and serious human rights violations such as abduction and torture.”
Based on such evidence, the Belgian government should have suspected what would happen to the protesters or their families when a member of Zakani’s delegation was allowed to film the demonstrators, but it took no action to prevent him from doing so.
In October 2022, Belgian Minister of Foreign Affairs Hadja Lahbib cut her hair in parliament in support of Iranian women but, unbelievably, just a few months later she granted visas to a delegation headed by the former commander of an organization that was sanctioned by the European Union for its brutal crackdown on protesters. She was saved from a vote of no-confidence in parliament after her party threatened to pull out of the ruling coalition.
Abuse of Legal Means, Domestic and International
As we mentioned, indirect censorship is done either by outsourcing acts of repression or by institutionalizing self-censorship. The goal of such censorship is to hide the government’s role in censorship or to conceal the illegality of the government’s actions.
Another method used by the government of the Islamic Republic to silence Iranians living in other countries is the manipulation and abuse of domestic and international laws. In such cases, the government uses laws that do not appear to have any connection to freedom of expression and censorship.
For instance, in 2017, the Iranian judiciary froze the assets of 152 active and former members of BBC Persian staff. According to the Article 212 of the Civil Code of the Islamic Republic, only three adult groups are banned from conducting financial transactions: individuals who are mentally incapacitated, bankrupt businessmen and convicts. Obviously, members of the BBC Persian staff do not belong to any of these groups. Nevertheless, an Iranian court froze their assets, preventing them from conducting transactions.
The judiciary never tried to justify this verdict but later, in a similar case, offered a strange interpretation of the law. In November 2019, the judiciary used an anti-terrorism law passed by the Iranian parliament in 2016 to freeze the assets of “key” staff of Iran International, accusing the network of planning terrorist attacks, attempting to overthrow the regime and encouraging “thugs” to destroy public property.
In some cases the government has used Article 49 of the Islamic Republic’s constitution and other laws based on this article to freeze or confiscate assets belonging to journalists or human rights activists. This article gives the government “the responsibility of confiscating all wealth accumulated through usury, usurpation, bribery, embezzlement, theft, gambling, misuse of endowments, misuse of government contracts and transactions, the sale of uncultivated lands and other resources subject to public ownership, the operation of centers of corruption, and other illicit means and sources.” According to a law derived from this article, assets owned by “members of Freemasonry or those who cooperate with international spy organizations” are eligible for confiscation.
In other words, the government of the Islamic Republic considers activities by journalists or human rights activists to be the same as espionage for foreign governments. Such an abuse of law has a strong impact on the profession of journalism and can lead to self-censorship.
Another method of indirect censorship is the abuse of international law enforcement mechanisms that lack adequate safeguards to protect human rights. A clear example is the abuse of Interpol’s Red Notices in order to pressure, silence or intimidate the opposition in foreign countries.
In 2006, after Interpol issued a Red Notice for Iranian-Arab political activist Rasoul Mazraeh at the request of the Islamic Republic, Syrian police arrested and extradited the man to Iran, where he was sentenced to 15 years in prison and lost all his teeth under torture.
Three years later, again at the request of the Islamic Republic’s government, Interpol issued a Red Notice for political activist Shahram Homayoun, the owner of Channel One, a Persian-language satellite TV station based in Los Angeles. For a long time Homayoun did not dare to travel outside the United States for fear of being arrested.
In 2016, Iranian blogger and activist Mehdi Khosravi was arrested while visiting Italy following a Red Notice issued by Interpol, even though he had been living in Britain as a political refugee for the previous six years.
These methods of indirect repression are easy to prevent, provided the host governments have the political will to protect their Iranian residents. However, as of now, Western countries have either remained silent to these repressive actions by the Islamic Republic or have taken actions that have proven to be woefully inadequate.