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(New York) – Iranian authorities should immediately charge or release at least 10 journalists and bloggers arrested since the beginning of 2012, Human Rights Watch said today. The arrests appear to be part of the government’s most recent campaign to disrupt the free flow of information ahead of parliamentary elections scheduled for March 2.

On January 19, security forces stormed the home of Shahram Manouchehri, a journalist, searched and confiscated his belongings, and transferred him to an unknown location. On January 17, security forces stormed the homes of two journalists, Marzieh Rasouli and Sahamoddin Bouraghani, in Tehran and arrested them. On January 15, agents arrested Parastou Dokouhaki, a journalist, blogger, and women’s rights activist. At least six other journalists and bloggers have also been arrested and detained since the beginning of the year. All have been associated with reformist papers or websites critical of government policies.

“This wave of arrests against journalists and bloggers is a brazen attempt by the authorities to exercise absolute control over information available to the citizens,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Officials should immediately release all journalists and bloggers currently languishing in Iran’s prisons without ever being publicly charged and presented with the evidence against them, or serving time for exercising their right to freedom of expression.”

Authorities have refused to reveal publicly the charges against the journalists and bloggers arrested since the beginning of the year. On January 24, BBC’s Persian website reported that judicial authorities had acknowledged the issuance of a “temporary detention” order for Dokouhaki, but a source close to the families of Rasouli and Dokouhaki told Human Rights Watch that judicial authorities have so far refused to meet with the families or provide any official reasons behind the women’s arrests. The source said that Dokouhaki had contacted her family by phone several times since her arrest, but that Rasouli had only managed to call her family once, within 24 hours of her arrest. Security agents confiscated Rasouli and Dokouhaki’s private belongings, including their laptops, during the raids.

Following Rasouli’s arrest, BBC’s Persian website reported that the agents accused her of “acting against the national security” at the time of her arrest. Similar reports suggest that Dokouhaki has been informed that she is being charged with “propaganda against the regime.”

The source told Human Rights Watch that Rasouli and Dokouhaki are in Ward 2-A of Evin Prison in Tehran, which is controlled by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps.

During their careers, Rasouli, Dokouhaki, Manouchehri, and Bouraghani have all been associated with reformist papers, some of which have since been shut down by the authorities. They have also been previously targeted for their activities. In 2007, authorities charged Dokouhaki with “acting against the national security” in relation to her journalism activities, but a court acquitted her in May 2010. In October 2010, authorities prevented Rasouli from leaving the country and the Intelligence Ministry has interrogated her on several occasions. Manouchehri had been arrested during the crackdown that followed the 2009 presidential election.

Along with Dokouhaki, Rasouli, and Bouraghani, security forces have arrested the following journalists and bloggers since the beginning of the year: Peyman Pakmehr (January 17), Simin Nematollahi (January 11), Mohammad Soleimaninia (January 10), Said Madani (January 8), Fatemeh Kheradmand (January 7), and Ehsan Houshmand (January 7). Nematollahi is one of a dozen or so bloggers and website administrators working for Majzooban-e Noor, a website affiliated with the Nematollahi Gonabadi Sufi order. Security forces arrested eleven of her colleagues in early September 2011, but later released them on bail. Authorities had summoned several of these journalists arrested since January of this year for interrogations during the weeks leading up to their arrest. All are believed to be in Evin Prison.

On January 24, Intelligence Minister Heidar Moslehi announced that security and intelligence forces had uncovered and disrupted various plots to undermine the legitimacy of the upcoming parliamentary elections, and that the “link between the seditionist elements and the state’s enemies has already been established and there is lots of evidence [to support this].”

On January 8, Moslehi announced that security and intelligence forces had arrested a number of people and had evidence suggesting they planned to disrupt the upcoming parliamentary elections and “further America’s objectives” through social media sites. Earlier, Moslehi had warned that the parliamentary elections are the “most sensitive” elections in the Islamic Republic’s history.

In November and December, reformist and opposition activists, some of whom are serving prison terms, issued several statements calling the elections a sham and concluding there was no reason to field candidates. In December, the Iranian judiciary announced that anyone calling for a boycott of the elections would be subject to prosecution.

It is not yet clear whether this latest round of arrests is connected to Moslehi’s January 8 announcement.

As of December, 42 journalists and bloggers were in prison in Iran, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. According to rights groups, more than 60 journalists were forced into exile in 2011 alone, and authorities have shut down at least 40 publications since 2009. On January 17, Iran’s Supreme Court confirmed the death sentence for a blogger, Saeed Malekpour, a Canadian resident who was convicted of “insulting and desecrating Islam” in October. At least two other people have been sentenced to death by the judiciary on internet-related charges.

Human Rights Watch called on the authorities to unconditionally release all journalists and bloggers currently detained or facing charges related to their exercise of fundament rights, including freedom of expression.

This latest wave of arrests of journalists and bloggers comes at a time when authorities have redoubled their efforts to control the flow of information on the internet. On January 4, local newspapers printed new regulations issued by Iran’s new cyber police unit that gave internet cafes 15 days to install security cameras and begin collecting personal information from customers for tracking purposes.

Internet users and rights groups are also concerned that an increase in recent interruptions to internet connectivity and blocked sites may be evidence that Iran is testing a national intranet. In March 2011, authorities announced that they were funding a multi-million-dollar project to build a “halal” – or legitimate – internet in Iran to protect the country from socially and moral corrupt content.

Government sensitivity toward the role of the internet has been particularly sharp in the lead up to the parliamentary elections, including the judiciary’s threat that anyone who called for a boycott would be subject to prosecution.

“Unfortunately it seems the only lesson authorities learned from the popular protests that followed the disputed election 2009 is that the free flow of information is an existential threat to their ability to rule absolutely,” Stork said.

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