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#FreeSaeed: An Iranian Web Developer's Sixth Year in Prison

#FreeSaeed campaign image.

#FreeSaeed campaign image.

As of October 4, 2014, Iranian web developer Saeed Malekpour has spent six years in prison for creating an open source software program that others used to upload pornographic images to the Internet. On the anniversary of his arrest, activists and bloggers ran a tweet storm to support his release under the hashtag #freeSaeed.

A permanent resident of Canada, Saeed returned to Iran in 2008 to visit his dying father when he was charged with threatening the nation's Islamic ideals and national security via propaganda against the system. Malekpour has testified that he did not know how his program and code had been used and developed by others, as it was distributed as open source code

After a trial that reportedly lasted 15 minutes, Saeed was sentenced to death as a “corrupter of the earth.” In December of 2012, Saeed's death sentence was commuted from death to life in prison. 

Having spent time in solitary confinement, Saeed gave what he later revealed to be a forced confession, drawn under torture and interrogations by the Revolutionary Guard. In the months following, Iranian state television repeatedly aired his “confession” to the alleged crimes. 

Human rights lawyer Gissou Nia and spokesperson for the Campaign to Free Saeed described the broader implications of the case for programmers in Iran in an email to Global Voices: 

The arrest and ongoing imprisonment of Saeed Malekpour shows that all Iranian freelance web programmers are vulnerable to potential legal trouble as they cannot know for certain which sites their codes have been used on. Should they face the misfortune of having a code they created used on a website deemed obscene by the Iranian authorities (and where the backend is being monitored by the IRGC) they can face adverse legal consequences.

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In a sense, Saeed is the ‘sacrificial lamb’ of the IRGC's war on the online space. The Iranian Cyber Army was formed in 2008 and Saeed was arrested shortly after its creation, presumably to set a deterrent example for others.

Others close to the case believe the arrest is a result of a lack of knowledge regarding the culture and nature of software programming. Iranian blogger and computer engineer Arash Abadpour (known by the pen name Arash Kamangir) told Global Voices in an email, “Saeed's situation shows how arbitrary the system is. We have definitely seen this before, but his case is one of the most bitter ones. The bureaucracy and machinery of the system knows little about the technical aspects and is on high alert for conspiracy in every activity.”

The continued imprisonment and other recent arrests of bloggers and netizens have undercut the message of a more open society and Internet that dominated western media coverage of current President Hassan Rouhani’s campaign for the office.

Despite this generally upsetting trend, there have been some small victories. This past week the Narenji technology bloggers, arrested in November 2013 on unspecified charges, were released on bail.

While it is hard to gauge the impact that campaigns for the release of those imprisoned has on these arrests, many activists and analysts of Iran's legal system believe international pressure often has an impact on the release of those jailed.

Maryam Malekpour, Saeed's sister who resides in Canada, explained to Global Voices in a phone interview that Saeed has just been transferred to the general ward of Evin prison. He is allowed to make phone calls and have human contact for the first time since his arrest. She explained:

“He has been so alone, held in solitary confinement for so long, that he has a need to talk. To talk about anything, about our childhood, the past, what's going on now, and all I can do is talk to him, and try to give him hope that he will come out one day. I've been telling him about the campaigns for his release, and he cannot believe that people care and are talking about him. He's really grateful for all the efforts people are putting into his release..he's been sentenced to death. Both him and our family have been living with the spectre of his death for so long. All we want is a fair inquiry into his case. There is no incriminating evidence against him except for the forced confessions they took out of him.”

Gissou Nia stressed that Saeed's case should be put under independent investigation. “He has been severely tortured, has never received a fair trial, and has no access to his lawyer. For these reasons, there must be an independent inquiry into the handling of Saeed's case, and in the meantime he should be released on furlough while that investigation is pending.”

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