This year, one man did what millions worldwide do. He took to his blog and ranted about his government. He called them deceitful, and he demanded accountability.
The difference is that last month, by all appearances, that man was killed by the very government he was railing against.
35-year-old Sattar Beheshti was arrested in Iran in late October, his dead body handed over to his family about a week later. Over the course of the year, Beheshti, a laborer by trade, became more and more critical of the Iranian government, in particular over their support of Hezbollah, the Lebanon-based fundamentalist Islamic group, and the repressive actions of the government inside Iran itself. He became concerned with the lack of human rights in Iran, and now, sadly, it appears he was very much right to do so. His death has touched off a firestorm in Iran, as Iranians and members of the government itself are demanding answers, and it’s why Beheshti’s blog, titled “My Life for Iran” has become so distressingly appropriate.
On December 3, Iranian Attorney-General Gholam Hossein Mohseni-Ejehi reported official results from the government’s investigation into the death – though the government didn’t deny beatings occurred, it was concluded that “this beating was not in a manner that would result in his death.” It’s a statement that outlines the crucial and increasingly perplexing failing of most repressive regimes – contempt for one’s own people.
Perhaps this kind of contempt for the intelligence of one’s own subjects had its place in history – the assumption that official lies can and will become truth when those lies are told forcefully and officially enough. Maybe that’s why regimes like Iran are so hostile to an open Internet – the Internet being the one thing that makes that contempt unsustainable as a strategy. Because, in the information age, people know when they’re being lied to, especially when the lie is so brazen. And, if all of them don’t know, enough of them will figure it out to tell the rest. You can’t pull the wool over people’s eyes quite like you used to.
A man was arrested, beaten, and delivered to his family dead a week later. If the Iranian government really thinks so little of its people as to think they would believe that the government was not responsible for this man’s death, the Iranian government is very misguided. It would appear it is very much misguided, anyway.
Some members of the Iranian government have been calling the episode an isolated incident resulting from an over-zealous interrogator. But, when you have a system with a specialized police force (FATA) for what amounts to Internet thought-crime that has free reign enough to tell a man his mother will soon be wearing black (the day before he was arrested, Beheshti posted “Yesterday they threatened me and told me your mother will soon be wearing black” to his blog), you have a problem. Whether or not this is an isolated incident becomes irrelevant. The fact remains that a system is in place that allows these brutal, isolated incidents to happen, something that makes them possible in the first place. An enabler of torture is no better than the torturer himself.
Like always with tragedy, there are political spoils to be had. The current president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was last elected in 2009, in a very contentious election that saw many accusations of tampering and corruption. Since then, Ahmadinejad has not gotten more popular, as the Iranian economy struggles under the weight of international sanctions. Members of opposition parties are taking up Beheshti’s cause, while other conservative elements of the Iranian government are distancing themselves from the increasingly isolated president, demanding accountability and an explanation for why the government was silent for nearly a month after the killing.
The most important part of the aftermath, of course, is that the people themselves have taken up Beheshti’s cause with increasing vigor, which makes sense – if it happened to Beheshti, it could happen to anyone. And it makes the Iranian government’s dedication to repression even more baffling – you’d think by now, they would have enough case studies around the world to know that in the Information age, the surest way to stoke the fires of dissent is to try (and fail) to smother them.