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Hashtag Activism And Human Rights In Iran

Iranian authorities have proven themselves amenable to online pressure. But to effect lasting change in the Islamic Republic, people also need to engage in real-world action.

Tweeting in Tehran?
Tweeting in Tehran?
Ahmad Ra'fat


Social media platforms like Twitter are providing Iranians a place to do what they can't do in the actual, physical spaces of Tehran and other cities: gather together and unite around a cause, even if it's just for a few hours. And the cause that underscores all others right now is the defense of human rights.

The death-sentences issued earlier this year for Amirhossein Moradi, Sa'id Tamjidi and Mohammad Rajabi, three men arrested last November in nationwide protests, opened a new chapter in Iranian online solidarity.

Branch 15 of the Tehran Revolutionary Court made the ruling in late February, ordering that the three men be put to death based on charges that include vandalism and arson "with the intention of confronting the Islamic Republic of Iran" and the far more serious crime of moharebeh — "waging war on God."

This kind of "unruly" cyberspace might have prevented thousands of executions had it existed in the 1980s.

The news moved hundreds of thousands of Twitter users inside Iran and abroad around a Persian-language hashtag that translates as "do not execute" and that quickly trended worldwide. People across the globe came to understand that most Iranians are appalled by the execution of regime opponents or protesters.

In a country where joining a street protest can get a person shot or hanged, virtual unity is all the more important. And in this case, as a result, Iranian authorities decided in July to halt the planned executions. The online pressure was effective, in other words.

This kind of "unruly" cyberspace is a resource that didn't exist in the past, and might have prevented thousands of executions had it existed in the 1980s.

Tehran courthouse — Photo: Stanislao

The online solidarity didn't end, furthermore, with the postponement of the executions of Moradi, Tamjidi and Rajabi. Iranians rushed back onto the "cyber-street" when news broke that the Isfahan Revolutionary Court had issued death sentences for five others detained in a previous round of protests, in early 2018. The people in question are Mehdi Salehi-Qal'ehshahrokhi, Mohammad Bastami, Abbas Mohammadi, Majid Nazari-Kondori and Hadi Kiani.

Like in the previous case, pressure from cyberspace again forced the regime to backpedal. Authorities announced that the sentences were not yet definitive. The accused had been given two death sentences each, based on charges of "waging war on God" and "armed insurgency."

Even though the Islamic Republic's retreats are temporary, many Iranians have come to realize that online unity can yield results that other mass initiatives have been unable to accomplish. Not surprisingly, these kinds of virtual protests have continued. Other successful hashtags included those for the detained lawyer Nasrin Sotudeh, the former wrestler Navid Afkari (who has been hanged) and Maryam Shariatmadari, a protester who fled to Turkey but may be sent back to Iran. Her hashtag is helping keep her in Turkey for now.

The case of Nasrin Sotudeh is particularly illustrative. A prize-winning figure who is known internationally for her work to protect civil rights, she was largely ignored, nevertheless, by foreign media, even after a two-week hunger strike. It was only after Iranians took up her plight online that things changed.

Online unity can yield results that other mass initiatives have been unable to accomplish.

Online solidarity also prompted governments and personalities to plead for mercy in the case of Afkari, the 27-year-old who was recently executed after being convicted of killing a state agent in the 2018 protests. His defenders included President Donald Trump and FIFA. The former wrestler's case was reportedly riddled with irregularities, and it is widely suspected that he was tortured into admitting guilt.

The fact of the matter is that online reactions to real events are effective. And yet, real changes — including regime change — can only happen in the real world. More than a decade ago, during mass protests against the results of the 2009 presidential elections, Iranians proved themselves to be cyber-savvy then too, in that case by using Facebook. But in doing so, they also seemed to abandon the real world. Perhaps we should learn from that not repeat the same mistake.

The power of Iranians unified online is formidable, but it must also extend to the real world. Their solidarity must duly convince the world that the regime does not enjoy the people's support. They should speak in unison against it, without necessarily stifling differences. That would be an exercise in pluralism, which isn't discord but an effort to create a society that is broadly united and includes dissonant voices.

The emphasis should be on commonalities, one of which is our belief, as evident on Twitter, in the fundamental rights of Iranians. But from there we need to apply that energy and unity to the real world, because that, when it's all said and done, may be the only way to end the Islamic Republic's dismal history.

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