Thursday, March 30, 2006

Everyone knows that blogging is a popular forum for people to express their opinions. Any Joe can have his humor, tell his stories and express dissent in a public forum where the possibilities for others to view it is endless; a far step from the ol' soapbox.

In Iran, bloggers are being arrested by the dozens for expressing discontent with the government. Some are reportedly being tortured and held in solitary confinement.

"Freedom of expression is really at stake at the moment," says Julien Pain, who runs the Internet Freedom Desk at the Paris based group Reporters without Borders.

"The Iranian authorities have been clamping down on regular media for a long time, but it's only in the last six months that they're harshly attacking cyber-dissidents and webloggers. It's really a serious situation."

The Iranian government has never allowed freedom of expression. They are just prohibiting it more lately. They recognize the danger that free thought and expression poses to them.

Bloggers Arash Sigarchi and Mojtaba Saminejad are both currently in prison in Iran.

Mr Sigarchi has been in detention since 17 January while Mr Saminejad was first detained in November.

Both men have used their blogs to criticize the government, but Iranian officials will not say if they are in trouble for blogging or not.

Iranian-born Hadi Ghaemi is following both cases for Human Rights Watch in New York.

"Major charges against Sigarchi included him giving interview to foreign radio, which is completely a violation of his right to free speech and expression," Mr Ghaemi says.

"He's being kept in a prison in the city of Rasht, which is his hometown in northern Iran. Bail for his release has been set at $200,000."

Mojtaba Saminejad has not fared much better, according to Mr Ghaemi.

"Saminejad was kept in solitary confinement for 88 days, and he was subjected to severe beatings and torture. He was briefly released on 27 January for a short time, but because bail had been set at $125,000, and he wasn't able to pay that, he was rearrested, and his conditions are unknown."

There are an estimated 46,000 bloggers in Iran. Every one of them must watch what he or she says, or watch his back. The surge in the number of bloggers started in 2000, when the Iranian government began close censorship of the media.

Sina Motallebi was a reporter for a Tehran newspaper, when in 2001 he began to feel the grip of the government crushing his work. He turned to weblogging.

"I felt free and uncensored in my weblog," he said.

He wasn't really free. He posted an entry critical of Iran's treatment of a political prisoner. He was soon summoned to apear in court. Over a span of a year and a half in 2002, he was summoned four more times. Finally, in April of 2003, he was arrested and thrown in jail.

"I spent 22 days in solitary confinement, and I was interrogated," he says. "I was under very, very severe psychological torture. Still, the effect of torture remains on my soul."

He was released after a family friend was able to scrape together his $60,000 bail. Motallebi acquired a passport and got asylum in the Netherlands; he now works for the BBC's Persian Service in London.

The circumstances for Iranian bloggers is dire. The Association of Iranian Blogwriters, or Penlog, is demanding the release of Mojtaba Saminejad in the absence of any formal charges.

I, for one, am glad that I live in a country where I can say what I wish without the fear of the Secret Service knocking my door down at three a.m., where I have a right to a speedy trial, and humane treatment. The international community must (probably led by America again) demand that Iran start obeying human rights laws.

I fear that within the decade we will have no choice but to go to war with Iran. They are smacking of the early days of the Nazis, and they must be stopped!

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