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This Passes for “Moderation” in Iran

Those who believed that an era of political and social liberalization was about to dawn in Iran will not like reading this article:

Eight social media activists in Iran have been sentenced to a total of 127 years in prison, after they criticised the country’s government on Facebook.

The eight people – whose identities have not been revealed – were administrators of unnamed Facebook pages.

An Iranian court found them guilty of using the pages to spread anti-government propaganda, attemp to undermine national security, and insult Iran’s leaders. It is unclear whether they were acting together.

It is understood that those convicted will appeal the ruling, having each been handed sentences between 11 and 21 years, Iran’s IRNA news agency reported according to Sky News. The terms were passed in April after the eight appeared in court several times.

The rest of us will be appalled, but entirely unsurprised.

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Your Unsurprising News of the Day

“Happiness in Short Supply in Iran.” Tell us about it:

The media storm that erupted after police arrested six young Iranians for dancing to the Pharrell Williams song “Happy” in an online video prompted Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to tweet, “Happiness is our people’s right. We shouldn’t be too hard on behaviors caused by joy.” Iran’s leadership is right to be concerned about the country’s happiness. Gallup’s most recent rankings of positive emotions find Iran at 93 on a list of 138 countries. Iranians also reported the highest negative emotions in the world, second only to Iraq.

[. . .]

Iranians have every right to feel negative, given the high unemployment coupled with high inflation in their country that has crippled their ability to provide for their families, along with international sanctions over their nuclear program that have hurt their livelihoods. Additionally, 48% of Iranians in 2013 said they would not recommend their city or area where they live to a friend or associate as a place to live.

(This story was covered here.) So, I guess the big takeaway here is that it just happens to be very difficult to feel happy in a country run by a repressive, totalitarian, dictatorial government which lacks any sense of priorities or perspective, and which repeatedly acts against the best interests of Iran and the Iranian people.

Who woulda thunk it?

“Moderate” Governments Don’t Jail People Over Facebook Postings

Just thought I’d throw that opinion out there:

An Iranian court has sentenced eight people to jail terms ranging from seven to 20 years for crimes including anti-regime propaganda posted on Facebook, an opposition website has said.

Kaleme, which did not cite a source for its report, said the sentences were delivered last week giving the eight Facebook users a combined 123 years in jail.

They were charged with “insulting the supreme leader (Ayatollah Ali Khamenei) and the authorities, anti-regime activities, sacrilege and spreading lies,” Kaleme said.

There was no official confirmation of the court ruling and AFP could not independently verify the report.

Incidentally, are we still under the impression that the current Iranian president–weak though he is in comparison to the supreme leader–is a moderate?

Behold the “Moderate” Iranian Government

In all of its glory:

An Iranian court convicted on Sunday the editor and a contributor of a banned newspaper over a series of charges, including lying about Islam and spreading anti-regime propaganda, reports said.

The media watchdog banned the reformist Bahar daily in October 2013 after it published an article the authorities deemed as an insult to Shiite Islam for questioning one of its core beliefs. Its editor-in-chief, Saeed Pourazizi, who was detained and released on bail following the closure, was on Sunday convicted of “propaganda against the establishment and spreading lies and rumours,” ISNA news agency reported. The Tehran criminal court found Ali Asghar Gharavi, the article’s author, guilty of writing “against the standards of Islam” and “spreading lies and rumours,” the agency added.

On Priorities and the Regime in Iran

They don’t seem to get along:

A red carpet peck on the cheek by Leila Hatami, the Iranian actress at the Cannes Film Festival has been reported to the country’s courts by activists who are seeking a public flogging as punishment for violating Islamic laws.

Hizbullah Students, a group of university students with links to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard yesterday filed a complaint with Iran’s judiciary for the prosecution of the film star who starred in the Oscar-winning, A Separation.

Miss Hatami was condemned by Islamic Republic officials for kissing Gilles Jacob, the President of Cannes Festival, while attending the event as a member of the jury.

Mr Jacob tried to play down the incident, describing it as “a usual custom in the West” after it was condemned as an insult to Iranian womanhood.

“I kissed Mrs Hatami on the cheek,” Mr Jacob said. “At that moment, for me she represented all Iranian cinema, then she became herself again.”

According to the Guards-run Tasnim news website, the Hizbullah Students organisation called for Hatami to be flogged for “kissing a strange man”. The maximum sentence the offence can incur is 50 lashes.

[. . .]

Hossein Nushabadi, Iran’s deputy minister of culture, declared Hatami’s appearance in Cannes “in violation of religious beliefs”.

“Iranian woman is the symbol of chastity and innocence,” he said.

Apparently, we are supposed to believe that life in Iran is so incredibly problem-free that the authorities can afford to get outraged over patently non-outrageous things.

Quote of the Day

Just days after Iran’s president denounced Internet censorship as “cowardly,” six young Iranians were arrested and forced to repent on state television Tuesday for the grievous offense of proclaiming themselves to be “Happy in Tehran,” in a homemade music video they posted on YouTube last month.

By uploading their video, recorded on an iPhone and promoted on Facebook and Instagram, the group was taking part in a global online phenomenon, which has resulted, so far, in hundreds of cover versions of the Pharrell Williams song “Happy” recorded in more than 140 countries.

“Happy in Tehran” was viewed more than 165,000 times on YouTube before it attracted the attention of the police and was made private.

Robert Mackey. We are now entirely justified in paraphrasing Mencken; theocratic government in Iran is defined by the haunting fear that Iranians, somewhere, may be happy.

A Proper May Day Remembrance

When you read this, remember that excuses like “oh, but communism/Marxism wasn’t properly applied/implemented in this case” just don’t cut it. No matter how one tries to apply/implement communism/Marxism, things like the following just keep happening somehow:

After graduating from college, Müller was for years harassed by the Romanian secret police, the infamous Securitate. When she refused to become an informant, they orchestrated a campaign against her. She was subject to arbitrary interrogations, death threats, surveillance, and false rumors meant to discredit her, including the rumor that she was an informant. At its core this campaign was not about bruises, broken limbs, and shattered windows, but about things unseen. The regime’s violence was primarily mental, not physical. The battlefield here is not your body, but your mind and the language you speak; against such a regime you defend yourself not in the street, but in your head. It is Müller’s great achievement in this book, as elsewhere, to depict the individual’s confrontation with the totalitarian system as a fight over words, discourses (official or dissident), life stories (big or small), historical accounts, grand narratives, history textbooks, and archives. For totalitarianism, above all, is a linguistic project.

Even the most brutal episodes of Müller’s confrontation with the secret police are language-centered. She was investigated, to start with, because she was suspected of having made “pronouncements against the state.” In line with such an accusation, the interrogator would not use torture instruments against her, but words. “During the turbulent phases of the interrogations he called me a piece of shit, a piece of filth, a parasite, a bitch. When he was calmer, a whore or an enemy.” At the next stage there come the death threats. Yet that’s still bearable. “They are part of the only way of life one has, because one can have no other.” Facing death threats can make you stronger: “You defy fear, deep in your soul,” Müller says. Indeed, a death threat is a form of recognition: you are treated as an enemy, acknowledged as something the regime needs to take into account. Worse are the slanders that the regime fabricates and circulates to annihilate you socially. As Müller finds out, “slander robs you of your soul. You are completely surrounded.” This tactic does not offer you any trace of recognition—you are treated as negligible, as trash.

Such slander campaigns could make the secret police in totalitarian regimes look like literary workshops. For what they do is create characters; they make people up and release them into the world. When, years after the collapse of communism, Müller gained access to her secret police file, she discovered that in the archives she was not one, but two distinct people. “One is called Cristina, an enemy of the state, who must be taken on.” Except for the name, this character looked familiar to Müller, a version of herself as reconstructed by the regime’s spies and scribes. The second character was pure fiction. To compromise the real one, the secret police created a fake Müller, Cristina’s “double.” This literary product had all “the ingredients that would be most damaging to me—hardened Communist, ruthless agent, party member.” Working for the Party—or for its “Shield and Sword,” as the secret police was endearingly called—was often seen as a dirty job, something that could rob you of social respectability. Apparently the inner Party knew this better than anyone else.

Ilya Somin thinks that May Day should be designated as “Victims of Communism Day.” No decent person can disagree with that suggestion.

Torture in Iranian Prisons

Needless to say, this is both entirely obscene, and entirely unsurprising, given the nature of the current regime in Tehran:

Political prisoners in Tehran’s Evin prison have allegedly been subjected to humiliating physical abuse, including being forced to run a gauntlet of guards armed with batons, it has emerged.

Iran‘s president, Hassan Rouhani, has been silent despite chilling details being revealed by prisoners and their families about how Thursday’s disturbances marked a dark episode in one of the country’s most notorious prisons.

Dozens of inmates held in Evin’s ward 350, including journalists, lawyers and opposition members, were injured, with some suffering skull fractures, broken ribs, wounds and swelling on their bodies after guards and intelligence officials created a tunnel and made prisoners run through it as they beat them with batons, according to opposition sources.

Emad Bahavar, who is serving a 10-year sentence because of his political activities, recounted some of the horrific moments in a letter sent out of jail and published on an opposition website, Kaleme, on Tuesday.

In separate interviews, a group of relatives who met a number of prisoners beaten up in Evin’s violence last week echoed Bahavar, saying some could hardly speak and others had bruises on their bodies. The incident has been described by activists as Iran’s “black Thursday”.

“‘Beat them up,’ they shouted. Forty guards armed with batons then rushed down the stairs … they sent more guards as it went on,” Bahavar wrote in his letter. “They made us stand in a row facing the wall in ward 350’s corridors while being handcuffed and blindfolded. They started to beat us up from behind. You could hear a whining noise. Outside the ward’s gate, the guards stood liked a tunnel and forced us to go through it before taking us on to a minibus. You could see blood on the way and inside the minibus.”

Recall that the election of a supposedly “moderate” president was supposed to alleviate at least some of the totalitarian burdens that Iranians are forced by their government to bear. This has not happened because (a) the president is not all that powerful in the Iranian system of government, and (b) because the Iranian president may not be the moderate people think he is.

Iran Is Not a Theocracy. It Is a Theocratic Mafiocracy.

To wit:

The 82-year-old Iranian woman keeps the documents that upended her life in an old suitcase near her bed. She removes them carefully and peers at the tiny Persian script.

There’s the court order authorizing the takeover of her children’s three Tehran apartments in a multi-story building the family had owned for years. There’s the letter announcing the sale of one of the units. And there’s the notice demanding she pay rent on her own apartment on the top floor.

Pari Vahdat-e-Hagh ultimately lost her property. It was taken by an organization that is controlled by the most powerful man in Iran: Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. She now lives alone in a cramped, three-room apartment in Europe, thousands of miles from Tehran.

The Persian name of the organization that hounded her for years is “Setad Ejraiye Farmane Hazrate Emam” – Headquarters for Executing the Order of the Imam. The name refers to an edict signed by the Islamic Republic’s first leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, shortly before his death in 1989. His order spawned a new entity to manage and sell properties abandoned in the chaotic years after the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Setad has become one of the most powerful organizations in Iran, though many Iranians, and the wider world, know very little about it. In the past six years, it has morphed into a business juggernaut that now holds stakes in nearly every sector of Iranian industry, including finance, oil, telecommunications, the production of birth-control pills and even ostrich farming.

The organization’s total worth is difficult to pinpoint because of the secrecy of its accounts. But Setad’s holdings of real estate, corporate stakes and other assets total about $95 billion, Reuters has calculated. That estimate is based on an analysis of statements by Setad officials, data from the Tehran Stock Exchange and company websites, and information from the U.S. Treasury Department.

Just one person controls that economic empire – Khamenei. As Iran’s top cleric, he has the final say on all governmental matters. His purview includes his nation’s controversial nuclear program, which was the subject of intense negotiations between Iranian and international diplomats in Geneva that ended Sunday without an agreement. It is Khamenei who will set Iran’s course in the nuclear talks and other recent efforts by the new president, Hassan Rouhani, to improve relations with Washington.

The supreme leader’s acolytes praise his spartan lifestyle, and point to his modest wardrobe and a threadbare carpet in his Tehran home. Reuters found no evidence that Khamenei is tapping Setad to enrich himself.

But Setad has empowered him. Through Setad, Khamenei has at his disposal financial resources whose value rivals the holdings of the shah, the Western-backed monarch who was overthrown in 1979.

Don Corleone would have been proud.

Quote of the Day

In 1970, when China was in the grip of the Cultural Revolution, Zhang Hongbing, a 16-year-old in Guzhen, a county in Anhui Province, made a fateful decision. During a family debate that year, his mother, Fang Zhongmou, had criticized Mao Zedong for his cult of personality. Her son and his father, believing her views to be counterrevolutionary, decided to inform on her. She was arrested that same day.

Mr. Zhang still recalls how his mother’s shoulder joints gave a grating creak as her captors pulled the cord tight. Two months later, she was shot to death.

In 1980, four years after Mao’s death and the end of the Cultural Revolution, the verdict on Fang Zhongmou was reversed. A local court declared her innocent.

In the months and years that followed, Zhang Hongbing and his father scrupulously avoided all reference to this episode. Only in retirement did his father raise the subject: As an adult at the time, he took responsibility for what they had done.

In 2013, the Chinese media reported the lifelong regrets of Mr. Zhang, then 59 years old. For years he would often break down in tears, howling and wailing. “I see her in my dreams,” he said, “just as young as she was then. I kneel on the floor, clutching her hands, for fear she will disappear. ‘Mom,’ I cry, ‘I beg your forgiveness!’ But she doesn’t respond. Never once has she answered me. This is my punishment.”

Why, in those dreams, does Ms. Fang never say a word to her son? It’s not, I think, that she wants to punish him, for she knows that the true blame lies with others — with those who were in power at the time. She — like the souls of all who perished during the Cultural Revolution — is awaiting their apology. She has been waiting for 44 years.

Yu Hua.

More Government-Sponsored Violence in Venezuela

Behold:

The masked gunmen emerged from a group of several dozen motorcycle-mounted government loyalists who were attempting to dismantle a barricade in La Isabelica, a working-class district of Valencia that has been a center of unrest since nationwide protests broke out last month.

The barricades’ defenders had been hurling rocks, sticks and other objects at the attackers, who included perhaps a dozen armed men, witnesses told The Associated Press.

Lisandro Barazarte, a photographer with the local newspaper, Notitarde, caught images of several of the men shooting into the crowd while steadying their firearms on their palms.

“They were practiced shooters,” Barazarte said. “More were armed, but didn’t fire.”

When it was over, two La Isabelica men were dead: a 22-year-old student, Jesus Enrique Acosta, and a little league baseball coach, Guillermo Sanchez. Witnesses told the AP the first was shot in the head, the second in the back. They said neither was at the barricades when he was killed.

Similar shootings across Venezuela by gunmen allied with the socialist-led government have claimed at least seven lives and left more than 30 people wounded since the anti-government protests began in mid-February.

And strangely enough, we still have no denunciations of government brutality from any chávistas–whether inside or outside of Venezuela. Imagine that.

The Political Crackdown Continues in Venezuela

And no chávista–inside or outside of Venezuela–has denounced it. I can’t imagine why:

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has used the military, legislative and judicial power consolidated during 15 years of socialist rule in a sudden series of blows against opponents who have spent more than a month protesting in the streets, knocking down their barricades and throwing dissident leaders in jail.

Thursday dawned with two more opposition politicians behind bars, one of them sentenced to more than 10 months in prison. And pro-government lawmakers had already started trying to jail another outspoken critic as well, moving to strip an opposition congresswoman of her legislative immunity from prosecution.

Maduro has been warning his rivals for weeks that they could soon meet the same fate as opposition hardliner Leopoldo Lopez, who was jailed on charges related to the Feb. 12 protests that initiated the wave of unrest, which has so far led to at least 28 deaths, most of them after Lopez was arrested.

San Diego Mayor Enzo Scarano was removed from his post by the Supreme Court, arrested and on the same day sent to begin a 10 ½-month prison term for failing to heed a court order to have protesters’ barricades removed from the streets of his city.

San Cristobal Mayor Daniel Ceballos was arrested as well on charges of rebellion and conspiracy. Maduro said in a speech last month that Ceballos would soon join Lopez in prison for fomenting violence. “It’s a matter of time until we have him in the same cold cell,” Maduro said.

Maduro said Thursday in a lengthy speech to ruling party officials that the government would continue looking to identify and “neutralize” the country’s enemies.

Remember back when chávistas–both inside and outside of Venezuela–claimed that George W. Bush’s presidency heralded an era of fascism? Boy, those were the days! And yet, they remain utterly silent in the face of stories like this one. Imagine that.

In Venezuela, the Catastrophe Continues

Behold:

Alvaro Villarueda starts his morning the same way every day — putting in a call to his friend who has a friend who works at a Caracas, Venezuela, supermarket.

Today, he’s looking for sugar, and he’s asking his friend if he knows if any shipments have arrived. As he talks on the phone, his wife Lisbeth Nello, is in the kitchen.

There are 10 mouths to feed every day in this family — five of them children. The two youngest are still in diapers.

“The things that are the scarcest are actually what we need the most,” Nello says. “Flour, cooking oil, butter, milk, diapers. I spent last week hunting for diapers everywhere. The situation is really tough for basic goods.”

There are times when further comment would be superfluous. This is one of those times.

Did Simón Bolívar Like Police States?

I wonder if all of the people who hailed the presence of a chávista government in Venezuela–you know the type–will have any opprobrium at all to spare for the Venezuelan government in light of this story. Probably not, intellectual honesty doesn’t seem to be a virtue as far as chávistas–whether they are found inside or outside of Venezuela–are concerned:

Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro has a new idea for how to fight his country’s shortages of basic goods: keep electronic records of what everyone is buying.

Maduro announced plans to launch what he’s calling a secure supply card (link in Spanish), which will allow Venezuelans to sign up and receive benefits, such as discounted prices, at state-owned supermarkets. “Like at other supermarkets around the world, it will provide a set of initiatives to motivate and reward everyone who participates in the supply mission program,” Maduro announced to a crowd of supporters over the weekend.

According to Maduro, the intent is to help minimize the impact of inevitable price increases at supermarkets, and reduce the amount of opportunistic goods smuggling (link in Spanish). Basic goods shortages have made it  either impossible or expensive to come by things like toilet paper, sugar, flour, and eggs. As of January, Venezuelans couldn’t find more than a quarter of the things they were looking for, according to the country’s national statistics bureau. And inflation is through the roof. While exact details of how the card will work aren’t known, the understanding is that it will function as a subsidy mechanism by using promotions and a reward system.

But according to the National User and Consumer Alliance (Anauco), a local non-profit consumer watchdog, the card scheme is a ploy to increase oversight of Venezuelans’ spending. The card, according to Anauco, is essentially a ration card, only one called by a different name. The true purpose is ”rationing purchases by announcing that they cannot be made on a daily basis,” Luis Vicente Leon, president of local think-tank Datanálisis, told El Universal (link in Spanish).

So, what we glean from this story is that when it comes to the state of Venezuela’s economy, things are nothing short of awful, and that when it comes to the state of civil liberties in Venezuela . . . well . . . things are nothing short of awful. Orwell would weep were he alive. As for living chávistas, they’ll just keep denying reality.

Your Absolutely Non-Shocking News of the Day

Behold:

Crimeans voted overwhelmingly Sunday to leave Ukraine and join Russia, election officials in the breakaway peninsula said, with the extraordinarily high figures capping a one-sided campaign of intimidation and heavy-handed tactics that blocked most voters from hearing a vision for any alternative other than unification with Moscow.

In related–and equally non-shocking–news, not all “votes” constitute genuine expressions of the popular will.

Quote of the Day

I’m a citizen of Ukraine. I don’t want to be a citizen of another country, or of Russia. It’s well known what it’s like to live in Russia. There’s absolutely no civil society whatsoever. You can’t say what you want. People can’t gather for demonstrations unless it’s good for the government.

Andrei Voloshin. You won’t be surprised to find out that the situation between Ukraine and Russia is getting worse.

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