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Senior Security Official Threatens Social Media Users

Iran -- Iranian police chief Hossein Ashtari, undated.
Iran -- Iranian police chief Hossein Ashtari, undated.

Iranian Police Commander Hossein Ashtari has warned that anyone using social media to incite people to “insult sanctities” or “damage public property” will be punished.

Speaking at a ceremony in Yazdel, Isfahan Province, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps’ Brigadier General Ashtari said, “People behind social media call-ups should leave the illusion aside that people will follow them.”

Article 513 of Iran’s Islamic Penal Code stipulates that “anyone who insults Islamic sanctities or any of the Great Prophets or [12] Shi’ite imams or the Holy Fatima shall be executed if the insult is considered saab ul-nabi (insulting Prophet Muhammad); otherwise, they shall be sentenced to one to five years’ imprisonment.”

The police chief did not mention any individual or group by name, but as a rule Iran’s security and intelligence forces have always harshly confronted what they call “insulting sanctities” and “blasphemy” in speeches, essays, books, and media.

Even a mildly satirical reference to a “sacred figure” may lead to detention and punishment in Iran. Recently, a tweet about the eighth Shi’ite imam and his martyrdom by eating poisoned grapes placed its author, young journalist Amir Hossein Esmaeili, behind bars.

“My client has been sentenced to 10 years in prison for insulting sanctities and imams,” Esmaeili’s lawyer, Hossein Ahmadi Niaz said. “He has also been heavily fined and deprived of the right to leave the country for two years, while facing a two-year ban for any activity in media and cyberspace.”

Ahmadi Niaz says the content of his client’s tweet was not intended to insult the imam, Ali ibn Mousa al-Reza, whose mausoleum is located in Iran.

Iranian authorities have long used Article 513 as a tool against religious minorities and non-believers, handing down harsh sentence terms and depriving them of social rights.

Earlier, two Iranian self-exiled pop singers, Shahin Najafi and Mohsen Namjoo, had been widely attacked on social media by Iran’s authorities, clergy, and Hezbollah activists for singing Naqi, a song addressed to twelver-Shi’a’s 10th Imam and a song about the Koran.

A young blogger, Soheil Arabi, has also been sentenced to death for “insulting sanctities” by running Facebook pages.

Confronting what has been described as “insulting sanctities” in Iran went beyond its borders when on February 14, 1989, the founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, said in a fatwa against British author, Salman Rushdie, “I inform the proud Muslim people of the world that the author of the Satanic Verses book, which is against Islam, the Prophet, and the Koran, and all those involved in its publication who are aware of its content are sentenced to death.”

Iran’s police, formally known as the Law Enforcement Force (LEF) of the Islamic Republic of Iran, or NAJA, its Persian acronym, recently launched a special unit to combat what it calls cybercrimes.

The chief commander of LEF is directly appointed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

“LEF’s responsibilities include the establishment of physical as well as moral and social security,” Khamenei said in a 2015 speech.

Since launching its cyber police unit, LEF has played a key role in Iran’s efforts to block the Internet. The cyber police monitors Iranians who express even mild opposition to the ruling establishment’s policies or try to circulate images and reports concerning political unrest, labor strikes, and protest rallies through social media.

Facebook, Twitter, and Alphabet collectively removed hundreds of accounts tied to an alleged Iranian propaganda operation on August 21.

Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg said the accounts identified on his company's platform were part of two separate campaigns, the first from Iran with some ties to state-owned media and the second linked to sources that Washington has previously named as Russian military intelligence services.

"Such claims are ridiculous and are part and parcel of U.S. public calls for regime change in Iran, and are an abuse of social media platforms," said Alireza Miryousefi, spokesman for the Iranian mission to the United Nations.

Infographic: Facing Up To Fake News
Infographic: Facing Up To Fake News