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Iran Attempts to Pull Plug on Web Dissidents

Times Staff Writer

The criminal seems younger than his 25 years. He is the quiet type, shy and lanky, peering solemnly through octagonal glasses. He has no weapons, not in the traditional sense.

His name is Hanif Mazroui, and the tools of his crime are a handful of ideas and skinny fingers flying over the keyboard. He is one of about 20 Iranian Web loggers and journalists who have been arrested and jailed in recent months.

Government prosecutors call Mazroui a violator of national security and an inciter of unrest. If you ask the nation’s conservative mullahs, he’s an acid eating away at the fabric of the Islamic revolution. He has done time in solitary confinement, and reportedly weathered death threats from judiciary officials.

Asked about his time in prison, Mazroui dropped his chin, studied his shoes and said, “I prefer not to talk about it.”

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Then, after a moment of awkward silence as he slumped at his father’s side, he fished into the pocket of his peacoat, drew out a bundle of black cloth and handed it over. It was a frayed blindfold, cut from thick canvas, with a tiny triangular wedge sliced out for a nose. He’d been forced to wear it in prison, he explained, and he’d smuggled the blindfold out with him as a keepsake.

“I just want to remember where I was,” he said. “I’m grateful for my time in prison, because I realized how much we should pay for freedom, and that freedom can’t be got easily. I’m a small drop of that.”

After toiling for years to silence dissent within the Iranian republic, the mullahs have turned their war against free press to the last reserve of open political debate: the Internet. Since the summer, Iran’s Web loggers, or bloggers, and online journalists have been demonized as CIA collaborators, their work whitewashed from many Iranian computers with filters.

“They can’t accept the free exchange of ideas and equality offered by the Internet,” said Sayed Mustafa Taj-Zadeh, an advisor to reformist President Mohammad Khatami. “They had to crack down on it.”

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The Web logs hadn’t been around for long. When they made their debut in Persian cyberspace in 2001, frustrated politicos hoped a new horizon had opened up. At last, repressed Iranians had found a space they could clutter up with words, ideas, flights of fancy. The Internet was ubiquitous, anonymous. And for a short and glorious time, it was free from the censure of the mullahs.

In their first year, nearly 3,000 Persian blogs sprang to life. In a nation where apathy has saturated the younger generation, there were hopes for a political awakening on the Internet.

Intimate and interactive, the Internet holds tremendous appeal here, delivering a slice of the world, a tangle of private and public utterances, into studies and living rooms. But as its political uses became clear and as reformists began to move their censored ideas into the freewheeling realms of cyberspace, the government soured on the Internet. The fight began quietly when filters appeared, blocking Web pages.

“They suddenly felt that we were using the Internet as an alternative to the papers they’d shut down,” said Hossein Derakhshan, a 28-year-old Iranian pioneer who took the groundbreaking step of publishing online instructions in Persian to teach Iranians how to post Web logs. He moved to Toronto five years ago with his wife, a Canadian citizen. “Blogs are the only uncontrolled and totally free medium, so they have the potential to attract many people, even people who are apathetic.”

The arrest of online journalists and bloggers began last fall. The writers say they were tortured and forced to publicly denounce their work. Even technicians who worked on Web pages have been imprisoned. President Khatami has ordered an investigation into the reports of torture.

“They think that now that they’ve closed the papers they should concentrate on the Web logs,” said Ali Mazroui, Hanif’s father and a former reformist lawmaker. “They think if they close this new source of information, they’ll have control.”

When the government sent him a written order to turn over his son Hanif, Ali Mazroui didn’t have much choice. He escorted the young man to the police station. That was Sept. 8. Ali Mazroui didn’t see his son again for two months.

Called before a presidential commission in December, Hanif Mazroui was among a handful of journalists and bloggers who told of the torture they’d suffered behind bars. They had been beaten, left in solitary confinement and forced to make false confessions, they said. They’d been grilled about their past sexual relationships, they said, and denied access to lawyers.

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Details of the testimony were displayed on www.webneveshteha.com, the Web log of former Iranian Vice President Mohammed Ali Abtahi. A reformist cleric who has become a pop culture icon by virtue of his whimsical, almost picaresque daily blog, Abtahi sat on the commission, and later recounted the indignities the ex-inmates described.

Mazroui is still free, but soon after going public with his allegations of torture, he stopped responding to e-mails from the Los Angeles Times. According to a Human Rights Watch report, Mazroui and the other journalists and bloggers had been menaced by death threats.

When the arrests began, Iran’s online writers were sent into a tailspin of debate and second-guessing. Should they stay quiet, or speak out? Was it all right to post online statements of solidarity with imprisoned writers, or would that only anger their captors and sharpen their torment?

Another Internet writer, who agreed to an interview shortly after his release on the condition that neither his name nor any revealing details be given, said he’d been interrogated mercilessly, beaten and held in solitary confinement until he became suicidal.

Remembering it, his features twisted together, and his eyes brimmed with tears that soon spilled over.

“I don’t ever want to go back to a place like that,” he said. “No matter what your mentality, no matter who you are, it will break you.”

He described being held in an underground cell no larger than a coffin, a claustrophobic place burned around the clock by an overhead light. He lost track of days under the unblinking light, and slowly came to believe that he would be forgotten there, he said, trapped eternally. “It felt like a grave,” he said. “I thought I would be there forever.”

The writer described something he said interrogators called the “miracle room” -- an interrogation cell where his captors terrorized him, bragging of the reformist politicians and journalists they’d broken down through psychological torment. He began to dream of killing himself, and plotted how it could be done.

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He couldn’t sleep, not even after he was released. He’d lain awake weeping in bed until 4 o’clock in the morning the night before the interview, he said. For the first time in his life, he added sadly, he was beginning to understand why Iranians give up and leave their country.

“We were the children of the revolution,” he said. “We weren’t asking for radical change. We wanted to work within the system.”


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