(Beirut) – Two Iranian journalists arrested in Tehran in August 2017 remain detained without formal charges, Human Rights Watch said today. The authorities should immediately release them or charge them with recognizable criminal offenses and ensure them fair trials.

Sasan Aghaei, July 2017.

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Authorities from the Judiciary Intelligence Agency arrested Sasan Aghaei, 34, deputy editor of the reformist daily Etemad, at his office in Tehran on August 13. On August 22, authorities also arrested Yaghma Fashkhami, a journalist for the Didban Iran website, at his office in Tehran. Both had been arbitrarily detained previously, in violation of their rights to freedom of speech.

“Iran’s judiciary and intelligence agencies have a longstanding pattern of prosecuting journalists on dubious national security charges,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The latest journalists to be arrested have not been accused of doing anything beyond exercising their right to free speech, and should be freed immediately.”

Since his arrest – the fourth time since 2009 – Aghaei has been held in solitary confinement in ward 241 of Evin prison in Tehran, which is under the supervision of the Judiciary Intelligence Agency. A source close to the Aghaei family, who wished to remain anonymous, told Human Rights Watch that “authorities are pressuring Aghaei to confess to having ties with the Amad News website,” which Iranian authorities consider an opposition outlet. “They could have simply summoned him instead of showing up to arrest him as a criminal,” the source said. Indefinite solitary confinement is cruel and inhuman treatment and can amount to torture, Human Rights Watch said.

On September 11, a source close to the Fashkhami family told Human Rights Watch that the authorities who first detained Fashkhami for five days later extended the detention to one month. “The family has been going to the court every day, but still do not know what charges he is facing,” the source said.

On August 31, Azam Eghtesad, the mother of Ehsan Mazandarani, a reformist journalist who has been detained in Evin prison since March 11, told the Center for Human Rights in Iran that her son’s health had deteriorated in prison. Authorities released Mazandarani from Evin prison on February 11 after he served a year on charges of “assembly and collusion against national security” and “propaganda against the state,” but arrested him again a month later. Authorities told Mazandarani that his release had been “a mistake.”

On August 29, authorities released Hengameh Shahidi and Zeinab Karmianian, two journalists the Intelligence Ministry arrested in March. It is not clear whether the authorities brought any charges against the two.

Also on August 29, Ali Mojtahedzadeh, the lawyer of six administrators for channels on the social media application Telegram who were arrested before the May presidential elections, told Ilna news agency that Branch 15 of Tehran’s revolutionary court had sentenced his clients to three to five years in prison. They include Nima Keshvari, Ali Ahamd Nia, Javad Jamshidi, Saeed Naghdi and Sobhan Jafari.

On March 15, Ali Motahari, a member of parliament from Tehran, told ISNA news agency that he had been informed about the “military intelligence organization” arrests – referring to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps’ intelligence unit – of about 12 Telegram channel administrators close to reformists. Several parliament members, as well as Mahmoud Alavi, the intelligence minister, and President Hassan Rouhani have publicly opposed the arrests.

Iranian authorities frequently detain and prosecute journalists on vaguely defined national security charges while granting limited or no access to legal defense during the investigative phase of their detention. Iran’s criminal procedure law, which went into force in 2014, sought to expand legal access for detainees. However, article 48 of the approved amendments requires people accused of certain offenses, including political charges, to choose their counsel from a pool of lawyers approved by the head of Iran’s judiciary. The list is not available to the public, and attorneys and families of detainees charged with national security crimes frequently report that detainees have been denied access to a lawyer at the pretrial investigation stage.

According to Reporters without Borders, in its 2017 Press freedom Index, Iran continues to be one of the world’s five biggest prisons for journalists, with 28 people detained as of late August.

“Iran’s various intelligence agencies seem to agree on at least one thing: their repressive approach towards journalists and press freedom,” Whitson said.