TEHRAN, Iran (AP) – Iran has sentenced a once-exiled journalist to death for his online work that helped inspire nationwide economic protests that started in late 2017, authorities said Tuesday.
Ruhollah Zam’s website and a channel he created on the popular messaging app Telegram had spread the timing of the protests and embarrassing information about officials directly challenging Iran’s Shiite theocracy. These demonstrations have been Iran’s biggest challenge since the Green Movement protests in 2009 and set the stage for similar massive unrest last November.
The details of his arrest are still unclear. Although living in Paris, Zam somehow returned to Iran and was detained by intelligence officials. A series of confessions on television have been broadcast about his work in recent months.
Judicial spokesman Gholamhossein Esmaili announced Zam’s death sentence on Tuesday, saying he had been convicted of “corruption on Earth”, a charge often used in espionage cases or attempts to overthrow the Iranian government. It was not immediately clear when the sentence was pronounced.
Zam can appeal his verdict delivered by a Revolutionary Court. His public defender’s name was not immediately known.
Zam had run a website called AmadNews that posted embarrassing videos and information about Iranian officials. He emphasized his work on a channel on Telegram, the secure messaging app that remains incredibly popular among Iranians.
The first spark for the protests in 2017 was a sudden jump in food prices. Many believe that tough opponents of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani have provoked initial demonstrations in the conservative city of Mashhad in eastern Iran, in an attempt to direct public anger at the President. But as protests spread from city to city, the reaction turned against the entire ruling class.
Soon, crying spells that directly challenged Rouhani and even Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei were heard in online videos shared by Zam. Zam’s channel also shared times and organization details for the protests.
Telegram closed the channel due to complaints from the Iranian government and disseminated information on the making of petrol bombs. The channel later continued under a different name. Zam, who said he fled Iran for being falsely accused of working with foreign intelligence agencies, then denied inciting violence against Telegram.
The protests in 2017 reportedly arrested some 5,000 people and killed 25.
Zam is the son of Shia cleric Mohammad Ali Zam, a reformist who served in government policy in the early 1980s. The cleric wrote a letter published by the Iranian media in July 2017 saying that he would not support his son because of AmadNews’ messages and messages on the Telegram channel.
The French foreign ministry described Zam’s death sentence as “a serious blow to freedom of expression and press freedom in Iran.” France abolished the death penalty in 1981, four years after the last beheading. The ministry described the death penalty as “unjust, inhumane and ineffective” and said France opposes “everywhere and under all circumstances”.
Separately, the spokesman for the judiciary said an appeals court had upheld a previous prison sentence for Fariba Adelkhah, a leading investigator of dual French-Iranian nationality. Esmaili said she received two separate sentences, a five-and-a-year prison sentence based on security charges, and that according to Iranian law, the longer sentence is that of a convict. He said her time in prison counts for punishment.
Iranian officials revealed last July that Adelkhah had been arrested on espionage charges. Those charges were later dropped, but the security charges remained against her.
Adelkhah and her French fellow researcher Roland Marchal were held in Evin Prison in Iran. Authorities released Marchal in March in an apparent prisoner exchange for Iranian Jalal Ruhollahnejad, who had been detained in France.
Iran, which does not recognize the dual citizenship of its citizens, has a track record of detaining double nationals or persons associated with the West
Associated Press writers Jon Gambrell in Dubai, United Arab Emirates and John Leicester in Paris contributed to this report.
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