Using the Internet to Save Lives in Iran

An interview with human rights activist Maryam Nayeb Yazdi about her efforts to stop executions in Iran.
By: /
July 17, 2014
Global Journalism Fellow at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto

Canadian human rights activist Maryam Nayeb Yazdi saves lives in Iran from her desk in Toronto, where she is at the centre of an international network of activists that work to improve human rights and stop executions in Iran. Though born in Iran, she spent most of her childhood in Canada. She first became concerned about the human rights situation in Iran in 2007 when she saw an interview on Persian satellite TV with a young human rights activist who had escaped Iran after being jailed, tortured and placed in solitary confinement by the Iranian authorities. In 2009, after the Iranian government violently suppressed protests in the aftermath of the Iranian presidential election, she founded Persian2English, a blog that documents human rights violations in Iran for an international audience. Today, she works to draw attention to a range of human rights issues in Iran, including executions, which, she says, take place in public squares each year to instill fear among the population. OpenCanada reporter Alia Dharssi sat down with Yazdi – who awarded the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal by the Governor General in 2013 – to talk about her efforts to halt executions and about how she makes human rights issues go viral.

You work to raise awareness of human rights issues in Iran. Can you tell me more about the sort of abuses you’re trying to stop?

The Iranian regime is a dictatorship. They need to suppress civil society through intimidation and fear in order to rule because they do not have popular support. The Iranian authorities fear any type of organization building or mobilization that’s separate from them. So if you start to build your own organization or mobilize five people, you’re a threat and they will target you. They start by threatening you and your family. They try to make you stop first. If you continue, even in a peaceful manner, they will arrest you. And, if you persist to act up in prison, such as go on hunger strike or protest, then they will target your family.

I’ve experienced this with the prisoners I campaign for. I’ve worked on cases where we had to actually get a family member out of Iran and bring them to Canada because they were at so much risk. In one case, the Iranian authorities were threatening to rape the sister of a prisoner in front of her brother’s eyes. If they did that, he would have confessed to a lot of ludicrous things that he’s never done and they would have used his false confessions to execute him. It’s a very, very dirty game. Much of the time, they don’t release the names of prisoners or even their charges. They’re also refused access to a lawyer, even though they’re granted the ability to obtain one.

I’m really shocked. I knew about some of these issues, but I didn’t realize the extent of the threats that they would put people through.

It’s very bad, but, at the same time, the regime is weak and insecure. They execute in unprecedented numbers to suppress civil society using scare tactics. Ahmed Shaheed, who’s the UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Iran, says the Iranian regime really cares about their public image. The image that they want to portray to Iranians is of strength, of invincibility.

At the same time, when they meet with Western authorities, they say: “We respect human rights. Look at our constitution. It says we’re not allowed to torture.” They take what’s on paper to the Western authorities and say: “Look, we don’t do that stuff. Where’s your proof?”

The proof is in the testimonials, witness statements, leaked videos… But apparently that’s not good enough to stop them.

Meanwhile, the executions paralyze the population. After a while, you don’t realize it’s affecting you, but it does affect you and make you numb. Sometimes I’m trying to write a report on executions and I know I have all the knowledge. I have all the information. I’m not even in the country, but I just can’t write it because I’m numb.

That sounds difficult. What keeps you motivated?

Knowing that there are people just like me who are being persecuted just for speaking out. Whenever I feel tired or whatnot, I remember that they are in prison still. I’m talking about top-achieving students who receive the highest marks on their university entrance exams and have been imprisoned now for five years with ten more to serve. When I think about that, it motivates me to continue. I also drink lots of coffee.

So you’re here in Toronto. How do you keep track of what’s going on in Iran?

We work very closely with activists inside Iran and activists who have fled Iran, often after being released from prison. For executions, we’re actually getting a lot of the news from the Iranian authorities. We read their news release just like anybody else. The only difference is that we actually work on the news and investigate it. Others just read it and then go on with their lives.

So you’re like a journalist?

I’m a citizen journalist every day. Online activism is daily work. Every day, we go through the news of the day. Then, we either find an English version or get it translated from Farsi into English. Once we have that, we start spreading it on our Facebook and Twitter pages.

The regime does try to hide severe crimes. Those usually happen within prisons – for instance if they brutally beat a prisoner, break both his legs, break both of his arms and offer no medical treatment. Sometimes those cases are so brutal that the prison guards are ready to cooperate with the prisoners. If you give them enough money, they’ll let you use technology to sneak out evidence.

Aren’t those prison guards scared of being caught? What if the government monitors what’s going on?

They’re not as organized as many people think.

Really? I thought Iran had one of the most comprehensive internet surveillance systems in the world.

Well, the Iranian regime gets their internet technology from China and their spying techniques from Russia. They’re very advanced in that sense, but you need to understand the world to know how to crack down on it properly. They don’t understand. If you tell them about Hotmail, for example, they think it’s an adult website. The regime doesn’t have a good grasp of pop culture, of society, of what’s going on. At the same time, they have many problems because they commit crimes against humanity and have subsequently angered authorities around the world.

Can you tell me more about how you campaign to stop executions?

My colleagues and I succeed in our campaigns and save people from death row because we approach the situation on a psychological level. We know they’re scared of attention, so we use that to our advantage. There was a woman, Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, who was on death row. She was supposed to get stoned to death for adultery. The regime was not expecting it to blow up, but Stephen Harper’s wife spoke out for her. Brazil, one of Iran’s allies, offered her asylum. That was a big embarrassment to the regime so we use similar tactics to that.

For death penalty campaigns, there’s usually a general formula that we follow. First, we get word of the execution. It might come from an activist inside Iran. It might come from a prisoner who says, “They just transferred person A out of here. He’s been gone for twenty hours. I have no idea where they’ve taken him.”

Once they get me and the other activists that news, we often have a Skype conference or email discussion right away. We write a statement or press release. Then we contact our colleagues at Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and other top NGOs and ask them to issue an urgent action. In some cases, these NGOS unite with Iranian NGOs to release joint statements on Iranians from ethnic or religious minority groups who are on death row. We use these urgent actions and our statements to get relevant international authorities involved. We focus on foreign affairs departments.

Foreign Affairs Canada?

Canada, the United States, Britain, France, Italy, Norway, Germany – these countries often respond and issue statements for us. And then, of course, we have Ahmed Shaheed’s team at the United Nations as well. They may issue an urgent action or a public statement. Sometimes, they take another approach where they privately send an urgent appeal to the Iranian authorities. If they don’t respond, Shaheed’s office makes it public. Once an NGO like Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch is involved, along with a foreign affairs department, we have a whole package of content to take to the media. And the media just eats it up because they see government authorities, NGOs, and activists mobilizing around a single subject. That’s all they need. And the story’s always very crazy. One of my jobs is to spread these stories and make them newsworthy.

Tell me about that. How do you make something newsworthy?

I’ll give you an example – the campaign I launched for Saeed Malekpour. Saeed was a permanent resident of Canada. He was working as a freelance computer programmer and living in Toronto with his wife. They both graduated from a top university in Iran. He went to Iran in 2008 to visit his dying father, who had a brain tumour. He never returned. The Iranian authorities kidnapped him three days after he arrived, took him to prison, tortured him for two days, extracted 30 hours of false confessions from him, pulled out his toe nails and broke his jaw. This guy wasn’t even an activist, but they accused him of creating an Iranian adult entertainment website. It wasn’t true, but they found his name in the program, probably in the coding, and arrested him. He was sentenced to death in December 2010.

Back in Canada, I had to spin this story to save his life. The Canadian government wasn’t responding to our work that well. The authorities told his wife that they couldn’t do much because Iran doesn’t recognize dual citizenship and that, even if they did, Saeed was a permanent resident, not a citizen.

So, I had to politely pressure the Canadian government to action. When I went to my media interviews, I said: “We have to help the Canadian government take action. They have their plates full. Human rights violations are happening all over the world, not just in Iran. So if want them to take action for Saeed Malekpour, we need to contact our local MPs, get them to create a petition, get people to sign it, go in the House of Commons, speak up and talk about it, mobilize the other MPs and Senators and get them involved as well.”

The Canadian government responded. Lawrence Cannon, who was the Foreign Affairs Minister at the time, issued a statement in support of Saeed the very next day. I worked with the Canadian government until Saeed’s death sentence was annulled in June 2011.

That’s a big change on the part of the Canadian government.

Yes, but Saeed remained in jail. And in January 2012, the Supreme Court called for a re-trial. They re-issued the death sentence to him within a few minutes without any investigation. This time, I got the international media to pay attention.

Saeed was re-issued the death sentence just before the March 2012 parliamentary election in Iran. I was starting to notice that the Iranian regime was cracking down on the internet because people were calling for boycotts of the election. The regime wanted people to vote so that the outcome would appear legitimate. So I spun the press release. I didn’t lie, but I saw how to put the truth together into a powerful story.

The story was that the Iranian regime is cracking down on the global internet to spread fear. They need people to vote. They need to suppress civil society so they don’t protest on the streets because people still remember the 2009 protests in which Neda Agha-Soltan was killed. And to do this, I argued, the regime needs to kill somebody like Saeed with internet-related charges. If they kill someone like that – who has no history of political activism, who is not violent, who went to the top university in Iran – they would succeed in suppressing intellectuals and everyone else in the country. So, I said, “He’s a pawn in their dirty game and they’re going to use him to spread fear. We have to stop them.”

Thankfully, the media picked up the story. All you need is one prominent journalist to pick up a story in the way you’ve spun it and you’re good to go. Once major media pick it up, it spreads like wildfire. More journalists write about it. Other activists get inspired and take their own action. That’s what you need. You want people to take action and start things like e-letter writing actions. You want the campaign to take a life of its own.

On that note, what trends are you seeing in online activism that you’re most excited about?

What I’m excited about right now is that more people are realizing that we need to improve communication among populations around the world. For instance, Syrian children are dying. People care, but they are not doing anything about it. Why? Because people feel helpless. They see that the U.S. government – the most powerful government in the world – isn’t standing up to Assad. So they think: “What is little old me going to do? Why should I ruin my day by looking at pictures of dying children?”

It’s important to get clear messages out there so that people realize they’re not powerless. Just doing the bare minimum does make a difference. If a million people share one link, that message or that issue is going to come to the forefront. The more that people understand an issue, the more confident they will feel about getting involved in that issue. And the more we talk about human rights issues, the better we can resolve them. As online activists, we’re just trying to scrape off the dirt and reveal the truth through clear and concise messages.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.