Toronto-based blogger faces execution in Iran

Posted: September 22, 2010 in Uncategorized

Hossein Derakhshan is a blogger who has created a guide on his website to help fellow Irainians create their own blogs.

MICHAEL STUPARYK/TORONTO STAR

Kate Allen
Staff Reporter

The strange saga of a Toronto-based blogger jailed in Iran on propaganda charges took an alarming twist Tuesday after his supporters said prosecutors requested the death penalty.

Hossein Derakhshan is known as the Iranian “blogfather” for launching the dissident Persian blogosphere — an act of defiance he committed from Toronto, where he lived for eight years after becoming a Canadian citizen.

Toronto was the launching pad for his most daring cyber-caper, when he visited Israel on his Canadian passport and blogged from inside Iran for a massive Persian-speaking web following.

“Hoder,” as Derakhshan calls himself online, was arrested after returning to Iran in the fall of 2008 and jailed for almost two years before facing trial this June. Family and supporters learned Monday night he could face execution.

A spokesperson for the Free Hoder campaign called the news “horrific.”

“The prosecution and the judiciary in Iran work closely together, so the fact that the prosecution is seeking (the death penalty) is seen as a very, very bad sign,” said the spokesperson, who didn’t want to be named for fear of repercussions in Iran.

Derakhshan’s story is a not a clear-cut case of cyber crusader versus state goliath, however. When the hardline Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came to power, months after Derakhshan’s highly publicized 2006 visit to Israel, the blogger abruptly switched allegiances.

Derakhshan “started out very critical of the Iranian regime, and then did a kind of U-turn and defended the Iranian regime and started attacking the people who used to be allied with him,” said Ron Deibert, a University of Toronto political science professor who knew Derakhshan when he lived in Toronto and studied at the university.

“He was very controversial. He rubbed a lot of people the wrong way.”

Derakhshan was a newspaper reporter in Tehran before marrying an Iranian-Canadian woman and moving to Canada in 2000. The couple later divorced.

From Toronto, he started a website, www.hoder.com, and figured out how to modify blogging software for use with Persian characters.

“That essentially kick-started what became an avalanche of Persian blogging. He’s credited with starting what’s known as the blogging revolution in Iran, because he made it so easy to do,” the Free Hoder campaign spokesperson said.

The Iranian virtual community is one of the busiest and noisiest in the world — Persian is the second-most used language in the blogosphere, according to reports.

Derakhshan “was a pioneer among the blogging community, not just in Iran,” said Deibert. “He was instrumental in starting a debate about the rights of bloggers and the threats they face,” and loved courting controversy — not least with his trip to Israel.

So it was all the more confusing for his followers — his site had 10,000 views a day — when Derakhshan shifted allegiances.

In 2006, he began writing newspaper op-eds defending Iran’s pursuit of nuclear arms. On his blog, Derakhshan justified other regime policies, including questioning whether jailed citizen-journalist dissidents were really innocent, according to former readers (the blog has been taken down since his arrest).

Some believe the about-face was an earnest change of heart. Others think he was tired of leading a huge pack of dissident citizen journalists and wanted to be in the limelight of controversy again.

While his motivations remain a mystery, his supporters agree he alienated a huge chunk of followers. So when he was jailed in November 2008 after arriving in Tehran for a visit, outcry was muted.

That changed on Tuesday, when news of Derakhshan’s possible execution hit the web. Users on the Free Hussein Derakhshan facebook page surged into action.

Lisa Monette, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said that Canadian officials had negotiated for access to Derakhshan since learning of his arrest in November 2008, but that access to him is very limited because Iranian law doesn’t recognize dual citizenship.

“Despite the Iranian government’s position, we consider Mr. Derakhshan to be a Canadian citizen. We will continue to press the Iranian authorities for access,” Monette said.

Farid Pouya, the Iran editor of Global Voices, an online free-speech advocacy group that has worked to promote Derakhshan’s cause, said, “It’s a very mixed story. It’s not white and black.”

Pouya argued that whatever his views, Derakhshan deserves justice: “it’s a question of principle.”
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