Human Rights

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Activists Deride Zarif For Falsely Claiming Iran Allows Free Speech

Iranian activists called foreign minister and chief nuclear negotiator Mohammad Javad Zarif a “Pinocchio” for saying that “the Islamic Republic doesn’t imprison journalists or dissidents over their views,” Bloomberg News reported Friday.

The controversy was sparked when Zarif said in an interview with Charlie Rose last week that “We don’t jail people for their opinions. But people who commit crimes, who violate the laws of a country, cannot hide behind being a journalist or being a political activist.” Zarif’s answer was in response to a question about Jason Rezaian, the Tehran bureau chief for The Washington Post, who is being charged with espionage.

Iranians who have spent time in prison for expressing opinions critical of the clerical regime took to Twitter and Facebook to mock Zarif. Images of the minister with an elongated wooden nose quickly appeared, a reference to the fictional children’s character whose nose grew every time he lied.

“Mr @JZarif is, unfortunately, lying,” said Maziar Bahari, an Iranian journalist and film maker who was jailed for 118 days in 2009 after he participated in a satirical interview on The Daily Show following a disputed presidential election. “Many innocent people are in prison in Iran just for being a journalist or an activist.”

Last month, Reporters Without Borders called Iran one of the world’s biggest jailers of journalists, with 46 journalists and Internet activists jailed after “unfair trials and held in inhuman and degrading conditions.”

Zarif’s credibility took another hit last week when activists “celebrated” Iran’s 1000th execution during the 18-month tenure of President Hassan Rouhani, a reputed moderate. The “celebration” took place outside of New York University, where Zarif was being interviewed.

The New York Observer reported that the “party” was organized by David Keyes, the executive director of Advancing Human Rights.

“We’ll be symbolically renaming the cross-streets where the foreign minister will speak, ‘Majid Tavakoli Plaza’ in honor of the jailed Iranian student leader and ‘Jason Rezaian Plaza’ in honor of the jailed Washington Post writer,” Keyes explained in an email.

Adding to the mocking nature of the protest, AHR has festooned the area with balloons and Iranian flags. An ice cream truck, live music, and signs that read “Free political prisoners! Free ice cream!” and “Hang in there!” are part of the dark humor.

“If anyone deserves to be humiliated and punked, it is a regime that hangs gays, murders poets and tortures bloggers,” said Keyes. “Satire is a profoundly powerful tool against dictators as we saw with North Korea’s hysterical response to The Interview. Tyrants silence and jail satirists because they fear them.”

During the interview at NYU, Zarif contradicted President Barack Obama by asserting that sanctions were to be removed immediately upon reaching an agreement, justified last week’s seizure of a Marshall Islands-flagged ship, and suggested that Rezaian was a spy.

The critiques of Zarif and Iran’s government come amid a growing consensus among experts that the human rights situation in Iran has deteriorated since Rouhani became president.

[Photo: Bundesministerium für Europa, Integration und Äusseres / Flickr ]