Sentenced to Prison For His Political Views, Sadegh Zibakalam Decries Censorship in Iran
“They Should Come Out and Say There is No Freedom of Speech”
Sentenced to 18 months in prison and banned from “making speeches, writing articles, giving interviews or having a presence on social media” for two years, Iranian political analyst Sadegh Zibakalam plans to appeal what he describes as a politically motivated conviction.
“I will object to this verdict,” the outspoken political science professor told the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) on March 14, 2018.
“I don’t have a lawyer because I believe the basis of the case against me has nothing to do with the law or judicial matters,” he added. “It’s entirely political. It’s not a legal matter to make me hire a lawyer. What’s a lawyer going to say in court?”
He continued: “I think the most optimistic outcome of the appeal would be a fine instead of time in prison, but the two-year ban will be upheld because the authorities have no tolerance for free speech.”
Zibakalam’s contract was recently canceled by Tehran’s Islamic Azad University (IAU), where he had been working as a professor for a decade.
“Expelling professors who teach humanities and rewriting their contracts are attempts by the IAU to make universities more Islamic and inject the state’s ideology into the curriculum,” he told CHRI on March 7. “But this method has been tried and has failed in Eastern European countries [under communism] and China. It will also fail in Iran”
Zibakalam is known in Iran for his outspoken criticisms of state policies.
He was convicted by Branch 15 of the Revolutionary Court presided by Judge Abolqasem Salavati—known for issuing harsh sentences in politically sensitive cases—a few months after he gave an interview to a German news outlet in which he questioned the Islamic Republic of Iran’s (IRI’s) popularity.
In the January 1, 2018, interview with Deutsche Wella, Zibakalm estimated that the IRI would not get more than 30 percent of the people’s vote if Iranians were allowed to choose their form of government today.
The court’s ruling is based on Article 500 of the Islamic Penal Code, which states, “Anyone who engages in any type of propaganda against the Islamic Republic of Iran or in support of opposition groups and associations shall be sentenced to three months to one year of imprisonment.”
Zibakalam told CHRI that he was convicted of “propaganda against the state” and “spreading falsehoods to weaken the state.”
“The law says propaganda against the state carries a punishment of three months to up to a year,” he said. “But they have sentenced me to 18 months. They say they added six more months because I’m a repeat offender.”
He added: “What’s interesting is that in developed societies where there’s rule of law, ‘propaganda against the state’ is not a crime. Why should it be a crime if someone does not share the same ideological views of the Islamic Republic of Iran?
Zibakalam argued that he was convicted simply for his political opinions.
“In his verdict, which I was allowed to read and copy down on Monday [March 12], Judge Salavati wrote that I contradicted the authorities who believe that the 2009 sedition was the work of the Americans and Israelis.”
Officials in Iran refer to the country’s widespread protests against the disputed outcome of the 2009 presidential election as the “sedition.”
“The judge also wrote that in my interview with Deutsche Wella, I said the demonstrations in early January 2018 were spontaneous and yet state officials say they were instigated by foreign infiltrators,” he said.
“Let’s assume Judge Salavati is right and those who demonstrated were organized by the Israel, US and the UK,” he added. “If I don’t share his opinion, why should that be a crime or sin? Why should I be punished? Did I take away anyone’s right? Which law have I violated?”
Zibakalam criticized Iranian governments before and after the country’s 1979 revolution. In the mid-1970s, he served two years and one month in prison for his membership in the outlawed Mojahedin-e Khalgh (MEK, also known as MKO or PMOI). He was released in September 1976.
In June 2014, the academic was sentenced to 18 months in prison for criticizing Iran’s nuclear program policies and the state’s handling of financial corruption cases by the judiciary. His sentence was later reduced to a fine of five million tomans (approximately $1,530 USD).
Zibakalam questioned the premise of Judge Salavati’s ruling against him, which cited Zibakalam’s assertion that the Islamic Republic is not popular among Iranians.
“My question is, if a person believes that everyone hates the state, why should that be considered a crime?” he said.
“This behavior, this turn of events, constitutes a negation of freedom of speech,” he added.
“They should just come out and declare that there is no freedom of speech [in Iran] and only words compatible with the beliefs of the state are allowed,” said Zibakalam.