Iranian-Canadian credited with sparking Iran’s blog boom gets 19 years

A court in Iran has sentenced the Iranian-Canadian founder of one of the first Farsi-language blogs to more than 19 years in prison for his writings, a news website reported Tuesday.

TEHRAN, Iran — A court in Iran has sentenced the Iranian-Canadian founder of one of the first Farsi-language blogs to more than 19 years in prison for his writings, a news website reported Tuesday.

Iranian-Canadian Hossein Derakhshan, 35, a controversial figure among Iran’s blogging community, was credited with sparking the boom in Iranian reform bloggers.

Writing his blog from Canada, he was initially a critic of Iran’s clerical leadership, and in 2006 he visited Israel — Iran’s archenemy — saying he wanted to act as a bridge between the two countries’ peoples.

But he later became a vocal supporter of hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, praising him for standing up to the West and criticizing regime opponents. Derakhshan then visited Iran in 2008 and was arrested. Over the next two years, he was often held without communication with family or lawyers, according to rights groups.

Mashreghnews.ir, which is close to Iran’s presidential office, reported on Tuesday that Derakhshan was convicted on charges of co-operation with hostile countries — a reference to the Israel visit — spreading propaganda against the ruling establishment, promotion of counterrevolutionary groups and insulting Islamic thought and religious figures.

The court sentenced him to 19 1/2 years in prison, the report said, adding that Derakhshan can appeal. It was unclear if he would benefit from time served.

In Canada, Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon said: “We are deeply concerned about the news of this severe sentence.”

Canadian officials were still trying to confirm Iranian reports of the sentence. he said in a statement. “If true, this is completely unacceptable and unjustifiable. Canada believes that no one should be punished anywhere for simply exercising one’s inherent right to freedom of expression.”

Cannon said Derakhshan’s situation is complicated by his dual nationality which is not recognized by Iran. Still, he said, “Iran must release him and other dual-nationals who have been unjustly detained.”

The minister said Canadian officials have been in contact with Iranian authorities to seek consular access to Derakhshan. “We will continue to press the Iranian authorities on Mr. Derakhshan’s behalf and urge Iran to fully respect all of its human rights obligations, both in law and in practice.”

Paris-based advocacy group Reporters Without Borders said in a statement that “never has such a tough sentence been handed to a blogger in Iran.”

“This case, fabricated from start to finish, shows that part of the regime wants to make Hossein Derakhshan into an example.”

The group’s statement said Derakhshan was paying the price for “internal rivalries and struggles for influence inside the regime. We ask Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to intervene personally to free him as soon as possible.”

Derakhshan, also known online as Hoder, moved to Canada with his then-wife in 2000. He became a Canadian citizen and lived in Toronto before heading to London for graduate studies. He was arrested by agents at his home in Tehran on Nov. 1, 2008.

Derakhshan helped ignite blogging in Iran by posting simple instructions online on how to create sites in Farsi in 2001. The flourishing of blogs by Iranians at home and abroad that resulted gave the country’s reform movement an online platform that has helped it survive heavy crackdowns at home — though authorities tried to block many, including Derakhshan’s.

His later embrace of Ahmadinejad angered many reform bloggers. Before returning to Iran, Derakhshan on his blog dismissed worries he could be arrested for his previous writings.

The Iranian government has stepped up its crackdown on opponents since Ahmadinejad’s 2009 re-election, which opponents say he won by fraud, a claim the president denies.

Authorities shut down two pro-reform newspapers — Andisheh-e No daily and Bahar Zanjan — for publishing articles in which they had insulted officials, another newspaper, Shargh, reported Tuesday. They were the latest in a string of newspapers to be banned since the election.