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Themes Prisoners of Conscience » Nima Rashedan

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Interviewed May 2011

Nima Rashedan was among the first Iranian cyber-activists. Born in Tehran in 1974, his father was a leftist opponent of the government headed by the Shah, so the family was forced into exile in the United States but returned to Iran after the 1979 revolution.

Upon his return, Rashedan became a member of student organizations and worked as a journalist, becoming one of the first writers to publish articles in Farsi on the Internet. In the late 1990s, after the election of President Khatami, he began writing pro-democracy articles.

In 1998, Rashedan was arrested and served time in prison, including a month in solitary confinement. After his release, Rashedan immigrated to Switzerland. He now lives in the Czech Republic and continues his work as a cyber-journalist and advocate. A frequent focus of his work is the similarity between the methods and objectives of the current Iranian regime and those of the former Soviet Union. 

I think they had a problem understanding if I was a very active opposition member or if there was a chance that they could intimidate me to come more the direction of government; because I think, in their opinion, I was capable; I was somebody who could help if I was in media, supporting their views or doing it very softly. At the start, they had probably this problem of “shall we break this person; shall we really put him under torture and make him unable to continue, or not?” This was the start of beginning of a wave of ours, and I was at the very beginning of that. So, they were pretty confused.

At the very same time, there was the issue of missing and slain – kidnapped and murdered – Iranian intellectuals and writers in 1998, which is now an important issue. And then later, the intelligence ministry confessed that they were kidnapping, and they apologized for that. So, it was inside the security apparatus, there was a kind of shock and awe. They didn’t know, really, what the government and security policy was going to do; they were just very cautious, and they were waiting to see, “are we going to be a bit more open; are we going to put away the torture?” And so on.

In my case, I was 30 days in a very small cell, solitary confinement, without any access to any book or anything, no phone call. I didn’t know what’s the time. I could know from the shadows, but I think I am starting now – getting back to that time – I see it was quite an uncomfortable time, if you say so, but I had really a kind of 30 days time to see it and rethink all about Iran: what we did wrong and where do we go, where do we head? I got a lot of these ideas in there, in that solitary confinement.

I got this idea that democracy in Iran and in the Middle East is kind of an engineering project. I think the capacity is there. I think these people are smart people – youth are very smart. They are sometimes, I really wonder how they’re much more American than many American cities, usually San Francisco; and you can’t compare it with Tehran. I think people, some people, at least, you know, a portion of young people, they are more Westernized and American than San Francisco.

So, the capacity is there. We just need this knowhow and engineering technology to let them make their own social networks, to know each other, to know that they are enormous – that they are the majority. One of the projects, one of the things which best can help people is to show them that you are absolute majority. If you connect the whole networks of different people in different cities, they see that actually there is no one standing for the government. It’s like fall of the Soviet Union: at the end, when the Soviet Union needed some public support, there was nobody there to protect the Soviet Union.

I do believe in the last election, Mr. Ahmadinejad really had problem to have votes, like a million. And that’s why, like in Poland, like in most of totalitarian countries, as history shows us, they did not 99 percent vote – one percent of it did, they did one percent vote – not 99 percent. That’s what the totalitarian regime did, and they will always do. They are so afraid of facing that the people are against them.

And I think here it’s our job, we have to give the Iranian public moral support and again, I insist on this word of technological and engineering support to build a public which has a challenge with the lack of any sort of free press, free media and information.

It needs some sort of engineering technical assistance to get to this whole debate of global democracy. And I think if I want to give a good example of global democracy – how things globally can change a country, particularly – I think you will not find any other nation better than Iran because Iran is a country which, if you say this for example, democracy assistance budgets; if you compare, I think, the public in Iran got nothing of that budget. The U.S. was kind of quiet about what’s going on in Iran. The concern was terrorists, nuclear issue and stuff. Nobody was imagining that there would be a mass protest; millions of people going with this protest. Nobody ever imagined that people in Tehran would come to the street and say, "We do care only about Iran; we don’t care about Gaza or Lebanon." 

Iran is a Middle Eastern nation with a population of just over 77 million. Iran’s population is predominately Persian, and Persian is the official language. The Shia branch of Islam is the official state religion, and approximately 90-95 percent of the population belongs to the faith. The second-largest nation in the region, Iran contains some of the world’s largest oil and gas reserves. The energy industry makes up a large portion of Iran’s economy, and the nation is one of the founding members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC).

The Islamic Republic of Iran is the world's only remaining theocratic state, in which political leadership is vested in religious authorities. The Islamic Republic was created in 1979 following a revolution against the Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi. Although many elements of Iranian society led the revolution, ultimately Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his followers gained control of the country. In December 1979, the country adopted an Islamic constitution providing that “all civil, criminal, financial, economic, administrative, cultural, military, political and all other statutes and regulations be in keeping with Islamic [law].”

Following adoption of the new constitution, Khomeini became the “Supreme Leader,” the ultimate political and religious authority in the country. Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Hoseyni Khamenei has been Supreme Leader since Khomeini’s death in 1989. The Supreme Leader is selected by a body of Islamic scholars called the Assembly of Experts. The Supreme Leader is responsible for the military and security concerns of Iran and has the final say on all issues. The president of Iran, who is elected by the public from a list approved by the Guardian Council (a body comprised of clerics and jurists), is nominally responsible for administration of the executive branch and is subject to the authority of the Supreme Leader.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected president in 2005. Ahmadinejad was viewed as an ultraconservative and his views a stark contrast from the relatively reformist policies of his predecessor, President Mohammad Khatami. Despite promises of equality and fighting corruption, Ahmadinejad and his administration cracked down on civil liberties and more strictly enforced religious-based morality laws.

Ahmadinejad was reelected in 2009 in an election widely viewed as fraudulent. Following the June 2009 election, hundreds of thousands of Iranians took to the streets in the largest protests in the country since 1979, which came to be known as the “Green Revolution.” The government responded to the peaceful protestors with a massive campaign of intimidation, violence, and limits on freedoms. Universities were closed down, media outlets and internet resources censored, and rights to assembly restricted.

In June 2013, Hassan Rouhani was elected President and replaced Ahmadinejad. Rouhani has a reputation as a relatively moderate reformer and has promised additional freedoms and rights. It remains to be seen whether or not these promises will be fulfilled.

According to Freedom House, Iran is one of the least-free countries in the world. In its most recent report, Iran received a score of six in both the political rights and civil liberties categories, where one represents most free and seven represents least free. Iran has been the subject of numerous resolutions at the United Nations condemning the country’s human rights record. Among other things, the government uses summary arrest and execution against its political opponents. The death penalty is applied even for nonviolent crimes, including adultery. Radio and television broadcasting are under the control of the government and provide only government-approved content. Women are denied equal rights in marriage and other areas.


More on this theme from Nima Rashedan

Nima Rashedan: Ideas in Solitary Confinement On his time in solitary confinement.

Other videos from Nima Rashedan

Nima Rashedan: Iranian Women On conditions for women in Iran and the role of women in leading the pro-democracy movement. Nima Rashedan: Physical and Digital Revolution Describing the beginning of the cyberdissident movement in Iran. Nima Rashedan: Time as an Ally “Nobody, nobody really can silence us because the technology and time is in our side.” More + Nima Rashedan: War on Media “It was a kind of war on media.” More +