Iran Targets Cultural Elite In Bid To Stop Them Linking Up With Mass Protests

As prominent cultural figures in Iran urge the authorities to stop using force against protesting civilians, Tehran is resorting to arrests and the activation of old jail sentences in an attempt to silence them.

It is a well-worn tactic of class warfare, observers say, that is intended to prevent dissent from spreading from the marginalized masses to the country’s more urban and affluent.

“The upper middle class, people who are well-off, are not joining these protests, and I think the system has been very much focused on preventing any kind of linkage to these protests and more popular support for them,” said Tara Sepehrifar, senior Iran researcher at Human Rights Watch (HRW). “Because as long as the protests are isolated, they [the authorities] can contain it and crush it.”

Muzzling cultural icons whose voices carry significant weight among the public is key to the authorities’ tactic, observers say, resulting in the arrests of some of Iran’s most recognizable filmmakers and activists in recent weeks. In some cases, they have been jailed on sentences imposed more than a decade ago.

The effort gained speed in late May, amid ongoing anti-government protests in the southwestern city of Abadan sparked by the deadly collapse of a 10-story building. The demonstrations, in which participants have accused officials of corruption and called for regime change, quickly spread to other towns and cities in the region and prompted a heavy-handed response from security forces.

On May 29, more than 100 prominent filmmakers, actors, composers, and others signed an open letter on social media using the hashtag #put_your_gun_down and requesting that “all those who have become agents of repression in the military to lay down their arms” in trying to suppress the demonstrations.

The authorities quickly issued warnings that the signatories could be arrested or banned from working in Iran, according to award-winning filmmaker Mohammad Rasulof, one of the leading voices behind the letter.

The government made good on its threat, putting Rasulof and fellow signatory and filmmaker Mostafa al-Ahmad behind bars on July 9. When hundreds more cultural figures led by internationally renowned film director and screenwriter Jafar Panahi issued a statement calling for their release, Panahi was jailed two days later on a suspended sentence that dates back more than a decade.

“I think the fact that the system has concluded that they do not want to tolerate their very minimal show of support — it is extremely peaceful, there is nothing in that letter that would be seen as crossing red lines, they are just asking people not to use violence against protesters — is just wanting to prevent any broader solidarity around these issues,” HRW’s Sepehrifar told RFE/RL by telephone from the United States.

Panahi and Rasulof, both previous supporters of the banned opposition Green Movement, had been targeted by the authorities before.

Panahi was arrested and soon released in July 2009 after joining a public mourning for protesters killed during the mass demonstrations against the disputed election that handed victory to the incumbent president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Panahi as well as family, friends, and colleagues were then arrested in early 2010. In December of that year, he was convicted of “propaganda against the system” in connection with several films he made that were seen by the authorities as critical of the clerical establishment. He received a six-year sentence.

He was conditionally released after two months, but was banned from making films, traveling abroad, or conducting interviews with foreign or domestic media. Since then, the activation of his suspended jail sentence hung over his head.

His fears were realized on July 11, when judiciary spokesman Masud Setayeshi announced that Panahi — who was re-arrested upon visiting the prosecutor’s office to inquire about Rasulof and al-Ahmad — had been sent to Tehran’s notorious Evin prison to begin serving his sentence.

Panahi’s wife, Tahereh Saeedi, told RFE/RL’s Radio Farda following his detention that he had been kept in limbo for years, prevented from taking trips or making films the way he wanted, and that she considered his latest imprisonment to be “hostage-taking .”

“Jafar has done nothing wrong,” she said, adding that his lawyers are working to prove that he had not committed any crimes. “Each citizen has rights. Prison is not the way. It cannot be this way, that whoever utters a word is imprisoned.”

Rasulof, who was arrested at the same time as Panahi in 2010 while working on set on a film about the Green Movement, received a subsequently reduced six-year prison sentence, and was barred from making films and leaving Iran.

In 2020, he was again sentenced to prison for “propaganda against the system” and banned from making more films but did not turn himself in due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and attempted to appeal the verdict.

Despite the restrictions imposed upon their work, Panahi’s and Rasulof’s films are prominent abroad, and their efforts to expose social issues in Iran have made them among the country’s most recognizable filmmakers.

They are not the only film workers and cultural figures who have come under scrutiny in Iran and whose plight has been recognized abroad.

In expressing their solidarity and anger over the arrests of Panahi, Rasulof, and al-Ahmad, a collective of the French film community also criticized the arrests in May of the documentary filmmakers Firuzeh Khosrovani and Mina Keshavarz, which was described as the result of a “technique of intimidation on free creation” by a “regime that is afraid.”

In addition, the collective noted the arrest the same month of fashion photographer Reihane Taravati raids conducted against dozens of other directors and producers.

In the last week of June, several journalists and activists were also summoned or arrested by the authorities, including Vida Rabani, Ahmad Reza Haeri, Amir Salar Davudi, and Masud Bastani.

On July 20, prominent lawyer and human rights activist Mohammad Ali Dadkhah was transferred to Evin prison to serve an eight-year prison sentence that had been handed down in 2011 for allegedly attempting to overthrow the ruling Islamic system in Iran. Dadkhah had been out on parole since 2013.

Sepehrifar of HRW noted that since the 1979 Islamic Revolution there has been tremendous pressure by the public on cultural and sports figures to take a position in defending social issues, and they have consistently used their platforms to answer the call.

“They have already been through scrutiny and been prosecuted for speaking out in favor of social and political reforms before,” Sepehrifar said, and the recent wave of arrests “is a continuation of that.”

In a year that has been marked by a rising labor movement, strikes by teachers, and protests against government corruption, water shortages, and increased living and food costs, the authorities “are very much focused on making sure there is no organized support for dissent , which would be much harder to crush,” she said.

This can also mean that the government can invoke, if necessary, old sentences that are hanging over influential figures’ heads.

“There are different levels of pressure, and it is like a toolbox to use depending on the situation,” Sepehrifar said. “Having a standing prison sentence, and being outside prison, can be one of the most effective ways to ask for someone’s silence because it can be implemented at any time.”

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