Earlier this month, an Iranian blogger who had been threatened with death because his blog criticized the regime died in custody. Amnesty International says the death of 35-year-old Sattar Beheshti was possibly the result of torture. The Center for Investigative Reporting, along with KQED and the PBS NewsHour, recently obtained video of other dissidents and journalists in Iran, many of them imprisoned for anti-government activities. They and others complain the Iranian government has become increasingly violent and paranoid. NewsHour correspondent Spencer Michels worked with an Iranian journalist, who shot much of the video and whose identity is being withheld, to prepare this report on the state of dissent in Iran today.

Read the Iranian government’s response here.

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Introduction: Journalists and human rights groups in Iran are charging that the government is imprisoning dissidents in a campaign to silence criticism of the regime. The NewsHour, along with the Center for Investigative Reporting and KQED, have obtained interviews from an Iranian journalist that tell the story. NewsHour correspondent Spencer Michels reports.

Reporter Spencer Michels: This is a rare event in Iran today: a party in a private apartment to celebrate the birthdays of 10 human rights activists – who are all in prison. Their relatives and friends gathered, including the husband and children of Nasrin Sotoudeh – an attorney who has defended many of the activists. She was sentenced to 11 years for opposing the regime. To the surprise of many, no one at this party was arrested. But gatherings like this are increasingly infrequent – as the government has made it more difficult than ever for dissidents even to meet, much less to openly push for free speech, free elections and human rights.

For a decade, Sotoudeh defended Iranians accused of all manner of crimes, and it has cost her and her young family a lot.  

Here she is five years ago, working the phones, giving media interviews, trying to prevent the execution of a teenager.

The next day, the youth’s life was spared.

During the Green Movement – an uprising that followed the disputed re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2009 – people took to the streets, demanding their votes be counted. Many were emboldened to speak out for issues like human rights that had been suppressed for years. But the regime quickly dashed any hopes with a violent and firm response.

Sotoudeh was one of a few attorneys who dared to defend the protestors, pushing for rights for women, juveniles and dissidents – and not always winning. Her 17-year-old client in this case was accused of political activity against the government and was hanged at the age of 20.

Sotoudeh herself was charged, like many dissidents have been, with acting against national security by talking with the media. Her husband, Reza Khandan, says it goes deeper than that.

Khandan (through a translator): The reason for my wife’s arrest, I think, was that she insisted on representing political prisoners. In general, the idea was to prevent the lawyers from going to court and following up on human rights cases.

Reporter: All of this has taken a heavy toll on the dissidents’ families. For Sotoudeh – whose prison sentence was reduced to six years on appeal – her children are only allowed to visit their mother occasionally.

Khandan (through a translator): They make it very hard on political prisoners. In the first eight months that my wife was in prison, we didn’t even have one unrestricted visit.

Reporter: Finally, the children, now 5 and 13, did see their mother – but only behind prison glass. 

Khandan (through a translator): In addition to cameras and microphones, there are guards who stand there and watch us. They listen to every word of what the children tell their mother. They watch all emotions and feelings. The children become a means to put pressure on their mother.

Reporter: Today, reports out of Iran indicate the government is squashing the fledgling protest movement that once thought it a chance at reform, by arresting, and in some cases torturing, critics and cracking down on journalists who report on it.

The most well known of those critics is Shirin Ebadi, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003. She was Sotoudeh’s most famous client and her mentor. Ebadi founded the Defenders of Human Rights Center. After receiving threats on her life, she is now living in exile in England.

In 2005, she presided over a meeting of leading human rights activists. Many of them – including activist Narges Mohammadi, attorney Mohammad Seifzadeh and Abdolfattah Soltani, another attorney, are now in prison because of their activities.

In October, thousands of Iranians, including striking merchants from Tehran’s bazar, protested the declining economy and the devaluation of the rial. Sanctions imposed by the U.S. and European countries have contributed to the downturn. Stanford Iranian scholar Abbas Milani, himself a human rights activist before he fled Iran, says the government responded with force to the demonstrations.

Milani: The regime is more paranoid today than probably any time since June 2009. They brought out 15,000 revolutionary guards into the streets in what was clearly advertised as an exercise in control of social disturbances. This was a show of force that had only one meaning: We know you’re unhappy; we know the economy’s in a shambles; we know you might explode, but no, we are ready for you.

Reporter: Since many journalists and activists are in jail, stories about the crackdown on dissidents have been hard to find in the press.

An Iranian journalist who asked not to be identified brought us video of some of the participants.

Last summer, as the families of political prisoners met, Jila Baniyaghoob – a journalist who has since been sent to jail – talked about her husband, also a journalist and an economist, who was sent to prison for three years for anti-state activities.

Baniyaghoob (through a translator): For several years, he had been writing about widespread corruption in government circles.

Reporter: On his release, he will be given 34 lashes.

This fall, the United Nations Human Rights Office declared that Iranian authorities have embarked on a “severe clampdown” on journalists and human rights activists, in a run-up to next June’s Iranian presidential elections. The Iranian delegation to the U.N. dismissed the report as unfair and biased and said the republic has worked wholeheartedly to realize the rights of its citizens.

Regime critics say they risk years in prison for their actions. Abdolfattah Soltani, an attorney and co-founder of the Defenders of Human Rights Center, tried to represent leaders of the minority B’hai Faith. His daughter, Maedeh Soltani, was interviewed in Germany.

Soltani (through a translator): My father was sentenced to 13 years in prison and in addition, 10 years of disbarment. In the trial, the judge told my father: “As soon as you are in jail and you don’t work, that’s good enough for us.” They don’t want him to do his job.

Reporter: Besides fighting for their own rights to protest, the dissidents have long fought for women’s rights: equality in marriage and inheritance, an end to polygamy and restrictions on women’s dress – all dictated by clerics who enforce a strict interpretation of Islam.

Anything can be regarded as a form of protest, says Abbas Milani, who is teaching a seminar at Stanford on dissent in Iran. Milani told his students the regime is very clever in using force.

Milani: I don’t think this is a regime that uses force randomly; they use force when they need it. They’re brutal when they need to be. The number of people killed by this regime is in tens of thousands. In one short period alone, they killed almost 4,000 political prisoners who were already serving time for another crime.

Reporter: I asked him what the regime is afraid of, why is it so paranoid, as he put it.

Milani: They’re afraid because they know the reality: The Iranian society doesn’t want them. They are, in my view, not supported by any more than 20 to 25 percent of the people. It is that 20 to 25 percent that is taking the lion’s share of the oil wealth; they are robbing the country blind.

Reporter: The dissidents’ earned international recognition recently when imprisoned attorney Nasrin Sotoudeh and banned filmmaker Jafar Panahi were awarded the European Parliament’s prestigious Sakharov Prize for human rights work. The Iranian government refused to let the prize winners meet with the prize sponsors.

Still, despite the crackdown, dissidents keep trying to change a regime that is now also under pressure from upcoming elections and a stressed economy.

Producer and correspondent: Spencer Michels
Camera and editor: Jason Lelchuk
Co-executive producer: Sharon Tiller, Center for Investigative Reporting
Co-executive producer: Joanne Elgart Jennings, KQED

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Spencer Michels

Spencer Michels, correspondent and producer in the San Francisco office of the NewsHour, began reporting stories for the broadcast in 1983, while still anchor and correspondent for KQED. A native of San Francisco, he graduated from Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs in 1959 and then received his master's from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

Michels began his professional career as a reporter with the Palo Alto Times, and then moved to KCRA in Sacramento. In addition to general reporting, anchoring and producing, he traveled around the world doing stories ranging from the Vietnam War and the Israeli war with Egypt, to socialized medicine in Scandinavia and bureaucracy in Italy. After working on news and documentary programs at the public station, KQED, for several years, he joined the NewsHour full time in 1991. Since then, he has produced hundreds of 5 to 10 minute reports on all manner of issues, including health, environment, science, politics, economics and arts. He has won several Emmys and other awards.