(New York) - Iran's state-owned media, judiciary, and security forces have opened a coordinated attack on human rights groups in recent weeks under the guise of defending the nation against "cyber warfare," Human Rights Watch said today.
The authorities have arbitrarily arrested human rights defenders, shut down websites run by human rights groups, and opened media campaigns accusing civil society groups of collaborating with foreign intelligence agencies and terrorist groups.
"Yet again, the government has drawn upon its tired playbook of foreign espionage and conspiracy theories to silence the few remaining critical voices in the country," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "This smacks of a desperate tactic to find one more excuse to attack human rights activists."
On March 13, 2010, a week before the Iranian New Year, Tehran's Public and Revolutionary Prosecutor's Office announced that security forces had arrested 30 people, contending they were involved with a CIA-funded project to destabilize the government with "cyber warfare."
The prosecutor's office contends that a network of opposition groups implemented the project, code named "Iran Proxy," under the cover of local human rights organizations, including the Committee of Human Rights Reporters, the Center for Defense of Human Rights, and Human Rights Activists in Iran. The prosecutor's office has not revealed who was arrested or when.
The government has attacked the groups publicly and shut down several websites run by Human Rights Activists in Iran. The judiciary, which includes the prosecutors, accused the network of various offenses, including hacking into state-owned websites; organizing and supporting foreign opposition and terrorist groups, including the banned Mojahedin-e Khalq; conducting illegal protests; publishing false information; and engaging in "psychological warfare" and espionage. The authorities have not provided specific evidence to support their allegations.
Although the government made no official announcement of the identities of the 30 arrested individuals accused of being part of the alleged plot, local human rights groups fear that some of their colleagues arrested during security sweeps in the past few weeks are among them. In a series of articles issued immediately after the announcement by state-affiliated media outlets, including Fars News Agency, Kayhan News, and Gerdab (a website administered by Iran's Revolutionary Guards), for example, the Prosecutor's Office accused The Committee of Human Rights Reporters of playing an instrumental role in planning and executing the "Iran Proxy" project. The group describes itself as an independent, non-partisan organization dedicated to documenting and reporting human rights violations in an effort to improve the lives of all Iranians.
A spokesperson for the group told Human Rights Watch: "According to their families, arrest warrants carried by agents who raided the homes of [human rights activists] included the word ‘cyber.' Now that these accusations have been announced, the families have just begun to realize what the authorities are up to."
The government has held 3 of the 10 members of the group's Central Committee identified in the articles - Shiva Nazar Ahari, Koohyar Goodarzi, and Navid Khanjani - for weeks without charges in Tehran's Evin Prison. Nazar Ahari and Goodrazi were arrested in December 2009 and Khanjani in March 2010.
Both of the other groups the government identified as part of the "cyber warfare" campaign - the Nobel Prize Laureate Shirin Ebadi's Center for Defense of Human Rights (CDHR), and Human Rights Activists in Iran (HRA) - describe themselves as non-political groups dedicated to improving the human rights situation inside Iran.
The HRA has been particularly hit hard by the recent series of attacks. In a statement provided to Human Rights Watch, the group indicated that "security forces undertook a massive coordinated operation to arrest members and colleagues" of the organization on March 2 of this year. According to the statement, the operation resulted in 29 attempted and 15 actual arrests of the group's members or supporters. None of those detained have been charged with any crimes. Among those arrested was Farideh Rafiee, the sister of the group's former executive director, Keyvan Rafiee, who currently lives outside Iran. The group maintains that Ms. Rafiee is not a member.
On March 14, the website Gerdab announced that the Revolutionary Guards had successfully shut down "29 websites belonging to the spy network ... that operated under the false cover of the human rights activists." Three days later, after the government shut down its Persian and English language websites, the HRA accused Iran's security forces of gaining access to the websites by torturing one of the group's site administrators and forcing him to reveal website passwords.
As part of its campaign against these human rights groups, state-run television broadcast the names, pictures and personal information of individuals allegedly affiliated with these groups. Human rights advocates believe that at least some of this information was obtained by security agents from the hard drives of individuals arrested during the crackdown. The pictures and other personal information were used to allege, in part, that high-ranking members of some of these organizations, including the HRA, have contacts with terrorist opposition groups.
"If there's anyone guilty of ‘cyber warfare,' it's the government itself, in its all-out propaganda offensive against local human rights groups and efforts to monopolize all internet expression," Stork said.
During the past few weeks, all three groups issued statements denying any involvement with the alleged "Iran Proxy" project, confirmed their financial independence from foreign governments, and accused Tehran of conducting a dishonest and dangerous smear campaign. The Center for Defense of Human Rights, which was forced to close its doors in December 2008 but still maintains its website, called the attacks nothing more than a "frame job against human rights activists and civil society."
In an interview conducted by Rooz Online, a Persian-language website, on March 21, Ahmad Batebi, the spokesperson for Human Rights Activists in Iran and a former student activist who currently lives in the United States, dismissed Tehran's charges that his organization has cooperated with foreign governments. He said that, "To date, the HRA has received no [monetary] support from any organization or government."