Free Saeed Malekpour, activists and family urge Iran

Free Saeed Malekpour, activists and family urge Iran
Blog: Take to Twitter to raise awareness and urge Canada's government to intervene on his behalf, supporters have been told.
6 min read
03 Oct, 2016
Tweeting up a storm: Supporters have been urged to Twitter to raise awareness [Malekpour family]

As the eighth anniversary of Saeed Malekpour's imprisonment in Evin prison approaches on Tuesday, his sister Maryam has been heartened by support from the San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation.

The EFF, a leading non-profit organisation defending civil liberties in the digital world, and its campaign to help liberate Saeed, held by the Iranian government since 2008 on mistaken charges of running a pornographic web site, has given Maryam "fresh hope".

Timed to promote an international Twitter storm on October 4, and calling for the release of the computer coder who was imprisoned by Iran's revolutionary guard while on a visit from his Canadian home to see his dying father, the EFF urges supporters to tell Justin Trudeau to fight for his freedom.

Sadly, Trudeau and his Liberal government appear to be doing nothing to help free the 41-year-old, who was dragged off a Tehran street by IRGC thugs, and taken to Evin prison where he was allegedly tortured into a false confession. After a five-minute "trial" - during which he had no opportunity to speak - he was sentenced to death.

In the lead-up to the Iranian elections that brought Ahmadinejad to power for a second term, protesters decrying the Iranian president used the internet to spread their cause.

In response, the Revolutionary Guard formed a Cyber Counter-Attack unit, aimed at controlling Iranian activity online.

When an Iranian pornographic website used - without his knowledge - some of the software Malekpour had been offering as part of a free trial, he became caught in a dragnet that saw many other innocent people jailed on trumped-up charges.

Most have since been released, but Malekpour remains in prison. He was convicted, with no evidence and without due process, of managing an online pornographic network in order "to corrupt Iranians on the direction of foreign countries".

In spite of a burgeoning home-grown industry, a 2007 law instituting the death penalty for producers of pornographic films is still in effect.

"They know he is innocent," contends Maryam Malekpour.  "But they are using him as a pawn to demonise the West."

Malekpour, now 35, risked her life to bring international attention to her brother's plight, sharing his account of his torture and forced confession - smuggled out of prison - with international media.

Stephen Harper's Conservative government granted her special temporary residency in Canada in 2012 as a "protected person" after she received death threats from the Iranian regime, but Trudeau's new government appears to have taken little interest in the case.

"I was happy when Trudeau and the Liberal Party came to power last year," says Maryam at home in Vancouver, where she works as an engineer and has now obtained permanent residency. "They talked a lot about human rights."

And with the Liberal government's ongoing diplomatic overtures to Iran and hints at re-opening a Canadian embassy there, as well as their successful negotiations to secure the release of Iranian-Canadian professor Homa Hoodfar last week, there appears to be some hope.

Read more: Canadian professor jailed for 'dabbling in feminism' released in Iran

"I thought that they would champion my brother Saeed’s case," says Malekpour. "Unfortunately, that has not happened. I'm heartbroken that Foreign Minister Stephane Dion has refused to help Saeed, despite my many calls for assistance."

While a spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said last week that they had been in touch with Saeed's family, Malekpour contends, "no-one contacted me. That is a lie."

The official reason for not intervening in her brother's case, she says, is that, because Saeed has only permanent residency and not citizenship, "there is nothing the Canadian government can do to help".

Malekpour finds this disingenuous at best, as the Iranian regime fails to recognise dual nationality in any case, and because, perhaps ironically, she received much more support from the Conservative Party in 2011.

She recalls that in 2011, Canada's foreign minister at the time, John Baird, issued a statement referring to Saeed as a Canadian of dual nationality, writing "I am particularly concerned by the uncertain fate of two Canadians of dual nationality who remain in prison in Iran."

The other Canadian referenced was Hamid Ghassemi-Shall, an Iranian-Canadian computer technician arrested on espionage charges who was released in 2013.

"When Hamid and Saeed were both in Evin Prison, the Canadian government didn't discriminate against Saeed," noted Malekpour. "They adopted Saeed as a Canadian and pushed for his release."

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Saeed's supporters have been promoting the Twitter Storm with this poster

Malekpour says her brother has been abandoned by Canadian officials in order to win favour with Iranian authorities as they renegotiate diplomatic ties. Her view is shared by EFF, which writes that Trudeau has "a perfect opportunity to highlight Saeed's case and use diplomatic pressure to release him as a condition of further cooperation between the countries. Or they could ignore his case in the pursuit of an easier negotiation".

"I understand that the Canadian government does not have a legal obligation to help Saeed," says Malekpour. "But I would hope that Prime Minister Trudeau would feel a moral obligation to fight for my brother's release."

Prior to his imprisonment, Malekpour was married and lived in Victoria, BC, where he moved to from Iran in 2004. 

He had no intention of remaining in Iran on his 2008 visit, and only went to visit his ailing father. While he was in prison, his father died and his mother suffered a heart attack while watching his forced confessions broadcast on Iranian television. 

After learning of his death sentence, his wife divorced him and sold their property in Canada. His sister, Maryam, remains his chief ally and advocate, as his family in Iran is terrified of speaking out. She notes that if her brother had not been imprisoned he would today be a Canadian citizen.

The most infamous case of the imprisonment of a dual-nationality Canadian in Iran was that of photo-journalist Zahra Kazemi, who was raped, tortured and killed by Iranian officials in 2003 following her arrest at the site of a protest by families with loved ones in Evin prison, where Malekpour is now held.

Since being released into the general prison population after five years in solitary confinement, Malekpour is now able to speak to his sister by telephone, but calls are monitored.

"He tells me that he is doing fine," says Maryam. "But I can tell from his voice that he's not.

"Things are so unpredictable in Iran," she says. "One day you can be on the street, the next you are in jail."

A successful 2011 media campaign led to a reprieve of his death sentence, but Malekpour still fears for her brother's life.

In this era of Snowden and Assange, with growing awareness of cyber-rights, Malekpour hopes that Tuesday's Twitter storm will triumph where more traditional human rights activism has failed.

She urges supporters to join the on-line campaign using the #FreeSaeed and #SaeedMalekpour hashtags, with the Twitter storm scheduled for 10:30pm Tehran time, or 8pm GMT on October 4. The campaign aims to use the very medium Iranian authorities attempt to control as a tool for his liberation.

The EFF is, meanwhile, calling on Saeed's supporters to write to Justin Trudeau and Stéphane Dion, Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, telling them not to forget Saeed, and to work for his return to Canada and his family there.

"It’s the right thing to do: for Canada, for Saeed, and for the internet," reads a statement on the EFF website.

Saeed's sister obviously agrees.

"Every voice counts," she says. "My brother must go free."


Hadani Ditmars is the author of Dancing in the No Fly Zone: a Woman's Journey Through Iraq. A former editor at New Internationalist, she has been reporting from the Middle East for two decades. Her next book, Ancient Heart, is a political travelogue of Iraqi heritage sites.

Follow her on Twitter: @HadaniDitmars