Several Detained, Summoned in Iran After Publicly Criticizing State’s COVID-19 Response
Members of civil society in Iran including a city councilman, soccer player, and journalists were detained or summoned for questioning after criticizing the Iranian government’s management of the country’s widening COVID-19 outbreak via postings on their social media accounts.
Those who’ve been arrested include previously imprisoned Shiraz councilman Mehdi Hajati, who was re-arrested by agents of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Intelligence Organization in mid-March 2020, one of his relatives told the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI).
Reports by Iranian state media outlets also indicate that the following individuals have been summoned for questioning: Mostafa Faghihi, publisher of the moderate Entekhab news site, political commentator Hossein Dehbashi, and Mohammad Mokhtari, captain of the Damash Gilan soccer team.
Several journalists and civil rights activists were also detained and questioned about their social media postings, according to sources in Iran who spoke to CHRI on the condition of anonymity for security purposes.
Some of those who were summoned were accused of portraying the country in a negative light and pressured to be supportive of the government’s efforts to combat a growing outbreak of the novel coronavirus COVID-19, which had claimed at least 514 lives and infected at least 11,364 people as of March 13, 2020, according to official estimates.
In Shiraz, a relative of councilman Mehdi Hajati told CHRI that Hajati was arrested at his home on March 12 after criticizing the way the government was handling the public health crisis via his Twitter account.
“At 02:10 in the afternoon on Thursday, IRGC intelligence agents came to Mehdi’s house with an arrest warrant from Branch 10 of the Revolutionary Court in Shiraz and took him away,” said the relative who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“The agents did not explain why he was arrested but they showed the warrant to his wife for a few moments and it said he had published falsehoods with the intention of disturbing public opinion,” added the source.
The source added: “We can’t figure out what made them do this during the coronavirus crisis. The truth is that we are more worried about the disease; his detention is secondary. Mehdi’s health is a lot more important to us. We are very worried because every day there are reports about increasing coronavirus deaths and the prisons lack basic health facilities.”
A day before his arrest on March 12, Hajati tweeted (before his Twitter account was suspended): “Stop blaming the enemy! Today the enemy of the Iranian nation is those who gambled with people’s lives out of spite for an imaginary enemy. The enemy of the Iranian nation is precisely those who didn’t allow [the city of] Qom to be quarantined. Iran will get over this disease, but she won’t lose her memory.”
Hajati served eight months of his one-year prison sentence in 2019 on the charge of “propaganda against the state” and was released in January 2020. He was initially arrested in October 2018 after tweeting about his efforts to free two detained members of the persecuted Baha’i faith.
Entekhab publisher Mostafa Faghihi was summoned to the Media and Culture Court after suggesting on Twitter that Health Minister Saeed Namaki had not informed the public about the “real number” of coronavirus victims, the Islamic Azad University News Agency (ANA) reported on March 10.
“Mr. Namaki, why won’t you give the real number of people who have contracted and died from the coronavirus? That’s okay, I will do your job for you: The number of suspected coronavirus deaths in Iran is close to 2,000 people, of which 130 died in Tehran and Gilan yesterday alone,” Faghihi tweeted on March 9.
The tweet, which others had retweeted, was deleted after Faghihi was summoned for questioning.
The ANA report also quoted an unnamed source stating that reformist political commentator Hossein Dehbashi had been arrested for “posting an offensive tweet about the spread of the coronavirus from Qom.”
In a tweet on March 8, which is no longer online, Dehbashi wrote: “History is written by the victors. But whether I live or die or live, I will bear witness for future generations. If they ask me why 22 provinces of this poor cat [-shaped on the map] country got sick to death, I will say it was because of the selfishness of a bunch of mullahs who used their turban power to prevent Qom from being quarantined.”
Then on March 11, Mohammad Mokhtari, the captain of the Damash Gilan second-division soccer team in northern Iran, was arrested after strongly criticizing via his Instagram account the authorities’ response to the COVID-19 outbreak in his province, the Iranian Labor News Agency (ILNA) reported.
“In Gilan [Province] more than 100 people a day are dying from the coronavirus. There is no more space to bury them. Their bodies have piled up. They are telling lies in the media and reporting only a fraction of the complete truth,” he wrote in an Instagram post that is no longer online.
He added: “Where are the cowardly Basiji brothers [volunteer paramilitary forces] who opened fire on people for every little protest? Why are they acting scared now? Why don’t you take your motorcycles and block the entrance to the cities? Go do something positive with the motorcycles you stole from the people. Don’t hide like a lot of mullahs in Qom who turned their backs on the people of their city.”
It’s unclear where the authorities are holding Mokhtari.