Iranian Judiciary Must Overturn Death Sentence for Canadian Resident and End Assault on Internet Freedoms

(1 February 2012) Iran should immediately suspend the death sentence for web programmer and Canadian resident Saeed Malekpour and investigate allegations of his torture, the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran said today.

On 30 January 2012 Iran’s Supreme Courtupheld the death sentence of 36-year-old Malekpour for “insulting Islamic sanctities” allegedly because he managed a network of pornographic websites. Malekpour’s family has maintained that he simply developed image-sharing software that was used, without his knowledge, to post pornographic photos.

“Malekpour’s death sentence is a shocking abuse of the death penalty and shows a lack of understanding of the work of a web programmer,” said Hadi Ghaemi, spokesperson for the Campaign. “The judiciary should put an end to using false confessions obtained under inhumane and severe pressure in order to achieve political gain.”

Malekpour’s conviction comes as part of an increased wave of Internet and new media censorship in Iran, including claims by authorities that they plan to end access to the World-Wide Web for nearly all Iranians and replace it with an internal government-approved Iranian Internet, labeled “halal Internet.”

“The Iranian government wants to control online content, speech, and morality as much as possible. But the Internet is not easily controlled,” said Ghaemi. “So at its heart, Malekpour’s conviction is about authorities trying to stoke fear by suppressing user-generated content and Internet applications that facilitate user-generated content and interactions.”

On 31 January the Organized Crimes Investigation Unit of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) issued a statement welcoming the death sentence of Malekpour.

The IRGC statement accused Malekpour of managing a network of illegal websites, and asserted his conviction is meant to have a deterrent effect on others. “The failure to carry out swift punishment using all legal means would hurt crime prevention efforts and increase the brazenness of [cyber] criminals,” the statement said. “As such, after the persistent efforts of [this unit] and months of intense legal action, the Supreme Court confirmed a death sentence for the biggest anti-religion pornographic Farsi network.” The statement added, “They should bring glee to all those who are concerned about protecting the boundaries of the religion and culture of the country.” The statement also announced that the IRGC plans to soon announce the arrests of several other Internet users violating Iran’s moral restrictions.

“The judiciary has shown itself time and again to be an instrument of the Revolutionary Guard, following their lead in convicting individuals,” said Ghaemi.

A number of former detainees who have been interrogated and prosecuted for their online activities told the Campaign that the Iranian Judiciary lacks the expertise and proper understanding of Internet technologies and website operation. The presiding judges in their trials issue their rulings without knowledge of how the Internet works. Consequently these rulings are based on the interrogators’ arguments and so-called “confessions” obtained under duress by agents of Iran’s Intelligence Ministry and the Revolutionary Guards Corps’ Intelligence Organization.

Allegations of due process failures call Malekpour’s conviction into question. In March 2009, Malekpour appeared on Iranian state television confessing to the charges brought against him. However, on 13 March 2010, Malekpour wrote aletter stating that his interrogators subjected to him to physical and psychological torture, including being held for a total of twelve months of solitary confinement, and receiving threats to the well being of his family.

Malekpour’s 2008 arrest was part of a larger operation conducted by the IRGC Organized Crimes Investigation Unit, which included a wave of arrests of Internet professionals.

A Revolutionary Court sentenced Saeed Malekpour to death in October 2010. The Supreme Court, however, overturned the verdict in November 2011 and sent the case back to the Revolutionary Court to resolve its prosecutorial deficiencies, citing incomplete investigation and insufficient testimonies.

Malekpour’s sister, Maryam Malekpour, told BBC Persian on 30 January 2012 that none of the Supreme Court’s concerns were ever addressed.

“They asked for an [Internet] expert to be brought in to review the evidence and the case, but it never happened,” Maryam Malekpour said. “Since Saeed had said that he had been under psychological and physical pressure (i.e., torture) the court asked for a full investigation…. At a minimum they should have sent him to the medical examiner, which never happened. [The Supreme Court] also asked for more credible evidence beyond his own confession, and that was never produced. None of these shortcomings were ever addressed and unfortunately Saeed never received a fair trial.”

According the semi-official Fars News agency the Supreme Court, in issuing its latest judgment, said the Revolutionary Court had resolved the prosecutorial deficiencies in Malekpour’s case.

“Malekpour’s case demonstrates how far the judiciary is willing to stray from the international standards regarding the death penalty that Iran has promised to uphold,” said Ghaemi. “Iranian officials are well aware that governments can only execute persons in narrow cases. Not for insulting a religion or writing computer programs. And definitely not based on coerced evidence.”

Article 6(2) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which Iran ratified in 1975, mandates, “In countries which have not abolished the death penalty, sentence of death may be imposed only for the most serious crimes…. This penalty can only be carried out pursuant to a final judgement rendered by a competent court.”

The UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions has stated that economic crimes, drug-related offenses, victimless offenses, and actions relating to moral values do not constitute “most serious crimes.”

Article 14 of the ICCPR guarantees all criminal suspects the right to a fair trial. The UN Human Rights Committee has noted that “statements or confessions obtained through torture” or ill treatment are inadmissible in judicial proceedings under article 7 of the ICCPR.

Malekpour has been a Canadian permanent resident since 2004. He was arrested in Iran in October 2008 while visiting his dying father.