I’ve long followed the case of famous Iranian blogger Hossein Derakhshan – even meeting him at a conference in Budapest in 2008 – but this latest news adds yet more layers of mystery to a man with a confused past, tough present and uncertain future:
Hossein Derakhshan, the Iranian Canadian who helped launch a blogging revolution in Iran, is on trial in Tehran, almost two years after he was arrested. According to the government-linked Fars News Agency, charges against him include working with hostile governments, spreading propaganda against the Islamic regime, and launching and managing obscene websites. The trial opened on June 23 and is expected to end shortly.
Derakhshan moved to Canada in 2001 and soon created a blog that was widely read in Iran, and among Iranian exiles. The tech-savvy Derakhshan also posted an online guide that allowed other Iranians to start their own Persian-language blogs. Thousands did. “Hoder changed everything,” says Arash Azizi, an Iranian journalist who knew Derakhshan in Tehran and recently moved to Toronto, referring to him by his nickname.
Derakhshan returned to Iran in 2004 to work for a reformist candidate, but left again and spent the next four years out of the country. He broke the Islamic Republic’s greatest taboo by visiting Israel in 2006. “I don’t care,” he wrote. “I am a citizen of Canada and have the right to visit any country I want.” But Derakhshan’s writings and public statements diverged sharply from this apparent irreverence. He became increasingly supportive of the regime, criticizing dissidents and others who suffered the Islamic Republic’s repression. In 2006, he described as genuine a confession to fuelling unrest in Iran that Iranian Canadian philosopher Ramin Jahanbegloo made after four months in jail. In the same column he declared that Iran had “passed the stage of state terror.”
By the time Derakhshan gave an interview to Iran’s state-run propaganda network, Press TV, in 2008, shortly before moving back to Iran, his words were virtually indistinguishable from those of a hired government spokesman. He praised President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s international diplomacy and condemned Israel and the Israeli lobby in America. Many Iranian democrats were contemptuous. “What is Hoder’s role?” the London-based Iranian blogger Potkin Azarmehr asked. “Simply put, to present an acceptable face of the Islamic Republic to Western intellectuals.”
Why Derakhshan returned to Iran in the autumn of 2008 is unclear—and is hotly debated. “Given his recent role as apologist for President Ahmadinejad and his systematic defamation of human rights dissidents, Derakhshan may have assumed that he would be safe,” Payam Akhavan, a McGill University professor of international law and founder of the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center, wrote in a newspaper column. He wasn’t. Derakhshan was arrested and spent much of his incarceration in solitary confinement.
It appears he co-operated—or was forced to co-operate—with his jailers. During a mass show trial held last year after hundreds of thousands of Iranians protested the seemingly rigged presidential election, an official referred to evidence provided by a nameless “spy who is now in detention.” The biography described by the official makes it clear he was referring to Derakhshan, who allegedly described the demonstrations as part of a pre-planned, foreign-orchestrated “soft coup” designed to overthrow the government the way uprisings had done in places like Serbia, Georgia, and Ukraine.
Little verifiable information is available about the progress of Derakhshan’s own trial. His parents were not allowed inside the courtroom. Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs will not say if a Canadian government official was there. Iran does not recognize dual nationality. Derakhshan is at the mercy of the regime he both defied and supported.