IRAN: Persian 'blogfather' Hossein Derakhshan faces death sentence
Hossein Derakhshan was revered as the "blogfather" of Iran even after he alienated much of the online community by renouncing his reformist ideals to become one of the government's staunchest defenders.
But it seems his conversion came too late, as reports surfaced this week that after placing him in solitary confinement for two years, state prosecutors are seeking the death penalty for the 35-year-old Derakhshan on charges that are still unclear but could include spying for Israel.
The rise and fall of Derakhshan, known by his online handle Hoder, is a sobering antidote to the giddy militancy of online activism in the age of the "Twitter revolution."
In the end, the Iranian state still owns the means to co-opt, convince or otherwise coerce critics into submission, or lock them up and execute them as it sees fit.
Derakhshan grew up in Iran as the son of a wealthy and well-connected family. In 2000, After working as a journalist in Tehran for several years, he moved to Canada, where he also holds citizenship. The next year he started one of the very first blogs in Persian, which he used to criticize the political and religious establishment and promote democratic reform.
In 2006, he used his Canadian passport to travel to Israel, where he appeared on an Israeli television program and wrote about breaking the negative stereotypes that divide Israelis and Iranians.
Shortly after, however, Derakhshan appeared to have a political change of heart. He began denouncing other Iranian democracy activists and defending Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his policies. According to people who knew him, Derakhshan's behavior became increasingly erratic and he sent angry screeds to a number of former friends and colleagues.
Based on Derakhshan's writings from that time, he may have been genuinely disillusioned with the West and especially what he saw as the hypocrisy of American foreign policy in the Middle East. But his targeting of certain figures in the Iranian opposition and the language he used to attack them led many in the blogosphere to speculate Derakhshan was receiving his talking points from the Iranian government.
In the fall of 2008, Derakhshan returned to Iran, reportedly to work for the English-language Press TV channel after receiving assurances from the Council for Iranians Abroad that he would not encounter serious problems from the government, his family has said. Several weeks later, he was arrested and placed in solitary confinement, where he has remained since.
When Derakhshan's fingerprints appeared in the cyber-wars that flared leading up to the contested 2009 presidential election, rumors swirled that the former blogger-dissident was comfortably holed up in a villa somewhere working for the government, or alternatively, that the government was forcing him to put his tech skills to use against the reformist challengers.
Several websites targeting then-presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi that went up just a few days before the elections appeared to use templates identical to the one favored by Derakhshan on his now-defunct blog.
One theory holds that Derakhshan feared reprisal against him or his family if he returned to Iran and was trying to get back on the authorities' good side by turning himself into the model repentant blogger, a reformed reformer the government could hold up as an example of a wayward youth come back into the fold.
Recent comments made by Derakhshan's mother to the website Kamtarin.com in a plea for her son's freedom appear to support this theory.
"I am asking as his mother, not as someone whose family has paid dearly for this revolution, why not make an example of Hossein as someone who has turned on his old ways, returned to his country and is ready to detail his previous deeds and thoughts," she said. "You want an example for the people, so they believe repentance is useless? Supporting the regime brings you such harsh rewards? All of this family, during all these hard years, have supported this regime. Hossein is also one of us."
Derakhshan's mother sidestepped a question about whether her son is being charged with espionage, but confirmed that prosecutors are seeking the maximum penalty.
Earlier this week, the blogger advocacy website Global Voices quoted a "reliable" source saying prosecutors are seeking the death penalty for a variety of charges related to Derakhshan's writing. At other times over the past two years, Iranian media and specifically Jahan News, which is considered close to the Iranian intelligence services, has reported the blogger is being charged with spying for Israel, which could carry a death sentence.
-- Meris Lutz in Beirut
Photo: Iranian "blogfather" Hossein Derakhshan could face the death penalty for charges that have not been verified but could include espionage. Credit: Payvand news
Video: Derakhshan visits Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. Credit: YouTube