Kidnapped Iranian journalist receives death penalty

Media sources outside Iran said Ruhollah Zam was kidnapped last year in Iraqi Kurdistan by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).
Tuesday 30/06/2020
Journalist Ruhollah Zam speaks during his trial at the Revolutionary Court, in Tehran, Iran, June 2. (AP)
Journalist Ruhollah Zam speaks during his trial at the Revolutionary Court, in Tehran, Iran, June 2. (AP)

TEHRAN, IRAN--Iran sentenced a once-exiled journalist to death over his online work that helped inspire nationwide economic protests that began at the end of 2017, authorities said Tuesday.

Media sources outside Iran said Ruhollah Zam was kidnapped last year in Iraqi Kurdistan by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

Zam’s website and a channel he created on the popular messaging app Telegram had spread the timings of the protests and embarrassing information about officials that directly challenged Iran’s Shia theocracy. Those demonstrations represented the biggest challenge to Iran since the 2009 Green Movement protests and set the stage for similar mass unrest last November.

A 2017 file picture shows University students attending a protest at Tehran University in Tehran, Iran. (AP)
A 2017 file picture shows University students attending a protest at Tehran University in Tehran, Iran. (AP)

The details of his arrest still remain unclear. Though he was initially based in Paris, Zam somehow returned to Iran and found himself detained by intelligence officials. A series of televised confessions have aired in recent months over his work.

US-funded Radio Farda said Zam “was captured by Iranian security forces in Iraqi Kurdistan last October.”

According to news website Iran Front Page, Zam was arrested in October 2019 by the Intelligence Organization of Iran’s IRGC.

IRGC officers have claimed in the past that they had beaten foreign intelligence services, especially the French, to Zam.

“Intelligence forces had been keeping a watchful eye on Rouhollah Zam’s movements for a long time and he stepped into the intelligence trap set by IRGC some two years ago. Ultimately, we were able to arrest him through cooperation with other intelligence services,” Second Brigadier General Mohammad Tavallaei, a high-ranking IRGC official, said last year.

Judiciary spokesman Gholam Hossein Esmaili announced Zam’s death sentence on Tuesday, saying he had been convicted of “corruption on Earth,” a charge often used in cases involving espionage or attempts to overthrow Iran’s government. It was not immediately clear when the sentence was handed down.

Zam is said to have faced charges of having “committed offences against the country’s internal and external security” and “espionage for the French intelligence service,” alongside “corruption on earth” as well as insult to “the sanctity of Islam,” according to an indictment released last February after his arrest.

Zam is able to appeal his sentence, issued by a Revolutionary Court.

Zam had run a website called AmadNews that posted embarrassing videos and information about Iranian officials.

AMAD is the acronym for Awareness, Combat, and Democracy.

Zam highlighted his work on a channel on Telegram, the secure messaging app that remains incredibly popular among Iranians.

The initial spark for the 2017 protests was a sudden jump in food prices. Many believe that hardline opponents of Iranian President Hassan Rohani instigated the first demonstrations in the conservative city of Mashhad in eastern Iran, trying to direct public anger at the president. But as protests spread from town to town, the backlash turned against the entire ruling class.

Soon, cries directly challenging Rohani and even Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei could be heard in online videos shared by Zam. Zam’s channel also shared times and organisational details for the protests.

Telegram shut down the channel over Iranian government complaints that it spread information about how to make gasoline bombs. The channel later continued under a different name. Zam, who has said he fled Iran after being falsely accused of working with foreign intelligence services, denied inciting violence on Telegram at the time.

The 2017 protests reportedly saw some 5,000 people detained and 25 killed.

Zam is the son of Shia cleric Mohammad Ali Zam, a reformist who once served in a government policy position in the early 1980s. The cleric wrote a letter published by Iranian media in July 2017 in which he said he wouldn’t support his son over AmadNews’ reporting and messages on its Telegram channel.