Editor Who Exposed Corruption in Tehran Municipality Remains Detained Despite Vindicating Evidence
Tehran MP Voices Support for Yashar Soltani
New information has seriously challenged the credibility of the charges against Yashar Soltani, who was detained and charged with “spreading lies” and “gathering classified information with the intent to harm national security” after he published an unclassified letter exposing wide-spread corruption in the Tehran Municipality.
Tehran City Council member Ahmad Hakimipour, who said he was Soltani’s source, insisted to reporters on October 27, 2016 that the letter from the National Inspection Organization that included the incriminating information was not stamped as classified. Iran’s Prosecutor General Mohammad Jafar Montazeri meanwhile confirmed the allegations in the report and announced corrective measures.
During an interview with Iranian state television on October 28, 2016, Prosecutor General Mohammad Jafar Montazeri said that the municipality sold properties “with special discounts above the legal limit” and some were allocated to officials located outside the municipality. Montazeri added that the Judiciary has accordingly invalidated the deeds of 36 of the real estate locations in question and the Tehran Municipality has been ordered to cancel excessive discounts.
“The prosecutor general’s admission that violations had taken place in the municipality completely destroys the (charge) against Yashar Soltani that he had ‘spread lies,’” a source close to Soltani told the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran. “What Memari News published was documented and truthful.”
“After the prosecutor general’s interview, there’s nothing left to investigate in this case, and keeping Soltani detained is unlawful and unfair,” added the source. “Soltani published the document that was given to him by a member of the Tehran City Council who has admitted to this fact. Soltani cannot be accused of publishing an unclassified report especially if it was truthful and exposed corruption.”
On August 31, 2016, Soltani, the editor-in-chief of the independent Memari News, published an unclassified letter dated August 8 from the National Inspection Organization exposing the mishandling of government-owned funds and properties in excess of 2.2 trillion tomans ($702 million USD). The results of the investigation also implicated several senior municipality officials, City Council members, Members of Parliament (MPs) and police officers.
The website was filtered from the internet shortly after the letter was published. Soltani was detained on September 17 and charged with “spreading lies” and “gathering classified information with the intent to harm national security” after Mayor Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf and City Council Chairman Mehdi Chamran filed a complaint against him and Memari News for publishing the report.
More than 700 of Soltani’s colleagues from the media have called for his release. He has also received important support from Parvaneh Salahshouri, the reformist MP from Tehran and leader of the Women’s Faction in Parliament.
“Unfortunately, instead of combating the sources of corruption, reporters like Yashar Soltani are being dragged to court for exposing organized corruption in the municipality,” said Salahshouri in Parliament during an open-session speech on October 25.
During his interview with state TV, Montazeri said: “Our investigations showed that about 150 individuals from within the municipality had received inappropriate discounts. They have been ordered to pay back the discounts based on official appraisals. There were also 29 non-municipal persons who were given apartments and that was certainly a regulatory violation that must be investigated.”
Montazeri also noted that Mayor Ghalibaf had acknowledged that mistakes were made without his knowledge.
The charge against Soltani of “spreading lies” would be difficult to prove in court, but if he is found guilty of “gathering classified information with the intent to harm national security,” he could face between two to 10 years in prison.
“Publishing the preliminary investigations of judicial bodies and closed trials violates regulations, even if it is done by the media in the name of transparency,” claimed Tehran Prosecutor Abbas Jafari Dolatabadi on October 23. “Soltani’s [intent] became obvious during the interrogation and he accepted responsibility for publishing the letter.”
On October 18, Soltani’s lawyer, Sadegh Kashani, was summoned to court for talking about the case to a news media outlet.
“This is the first time that a lawyer has been summoned to court for giving an interview to a domestic news outlet about his client,” the source told the Campaign. “Mr. Kashani’s interview was with (the hardline) Fars News Agency, and all he did was give the reason for the arrest and the bail amount. He did not talk about any secrets or the indictment. If the Judiciary cannot tolerate giving this kind of basic information to the media about a big case like this, then there will be no freedom of expression left.”
“[Soltani] was prepared to pay the bail set at two billion rials ($65,000 USD), but the prosecutor refused to accept it,” a source told the Campaign on September 28, 2016. “It became clear that the prosecutor was doing everything he could to prevent him from being released. Then, on September 25, they charged Soltani with a new charge that carries a punishment of up to ten years in prison.”
After the suspension of Memari News’ website, the Campaign called on Iran’s Judiciary to halt the persecution of reporters who carry out their journalistic duties by exposing corruption.
“The Tehran prosecutor’s suspension of a website for publishing an official letter is a blatant abuse of power aimed at suppressing media organizations that are trying to keep officials accountable for their actions,” said Executive Director Hadi Ghaemi.
“The Judiciary is making a mockery of its claim to be fighting corruption and protecting the rights of citizens by closing down news sites that expose unlawful activities,” he added.