Journalist, cultural editor of the reformist daily Etemad, poet, blogger
Acting against national security
Disturbing public order
Insulting religious authorities
Membership to an illegal organization
Propaganda against regime
Propaganda against the Revolutionary Guards
Provoking armed resistance against the Islamic Republic
Nine months in prison and 20 lashes
Date of Birth
Place of Birth
Shahram Rafizadeh, a journalist, blogger, poet and author, began his career in 1993, starting out as an editor and moving on to writing in 1996. He reported on and wrote about poetry and literature for the newspaper Iran Javan; he also worked as a cultural reporter for other publications. After 2000, in the aftermath of the “Chain Murders” — a series of assassinations of dissidents and intellectuals that took place between 1988 and 1998 — he and another journalist, Nima Tamaddon, began work on a multi-volume history of these assassinations. They gained official permission to publish the first volume, entitled The Power Game, but the two subsequent volumes failed to gain approval.
Rafizadeh was arrested on September 7, 2004 at his office. At the time, he was the cultural editor of the reformist daily Etemad. He was one of several journalists and bloggers arrested in September and October of that year, part of a crackdown that became known as the “Bloggers Case.” The campaign intended, among other things, to intimidate bloggers and online journalist as the internet grew in popularity and influence. After his arrest, authorities took Rafizadeh back to his home, searched it and confiscated all his papers, notes and documents as “evidence of a crime.” He spent 86 days in detention, 73 of which in solitary confinement. He was tortured during interrogations; his interrogators also threatened to harm his family. They then forced him to make a TV confession admitting to his “crimes” before he was released on bail.
In an extensive interview in 2008, Rafizadeh described his experience in prison and other details about the “Bloggers Case.” After his arrest he was taken to a secret location. “I was blindfolded,” he says. “They handcuffed and dragged me to a chair… It wasn’t long until a bunch of people started punching and kicking me. I was blindfolded, and couldn’t see how many they were. I don’t know how long it lasted. After they beat me, I fell unconscious for some time. They carried me to the restroom. They sprayed water on my face and I regained consciousness. I washed my face and I noticed that my nose was bleeding. When I washed my nose in the bathroom, my entire hand was covered in blood.”
Rafizadeh said he was not sure why he had been arrested in the first place. But then, he said, his jailers told him: “We have caught you — you have security-related charges [against you]. We will use you for a political purpose. If you confess to what we designated exactly ... and you play the role, you will be released. Otherwise, you will stay here and rot.” He said they “explicitly, bluntly and shamelessly” told him: “We have bigger goals that are not limited to you.” They told him they listed “special reasons” why he fit “into their scenario,” including his “work and family situation" and his “social and political background.”
During repeated interrogations, says Rafizadeh, “I was constantly beaten up. The interrogations never let up. They were conducted at all hours, all the time. They always wanted me to give in to their demands and act out the written script they had prepared for me. Sometimes during the interrogations they would push my forehead into the wall. They smashed my head against the wall a couple of times. I screamed from the pain but they wanted me to submit to their demands. During these torture sessions, anything could have happened to me. I could lose an eye. My nose could break, or I could have suffered from breathing complications as a result of the repeated blows to my head and forehead. They had slapped and punched my face so many times that my face had gone numb.”
“Planned” Traffic Accident
But the torture was not limited to physical abuse. “Emotional torture regularly accompanied physical torture,” he says. “The emotional torture varied, usually beginning with threats to me and ending with threats against my family. For example, they threatened to arrest my father and torture him in my presence. Anything was possible. They threatened to kill my family in a planned traffic accident — hundreds of traffic accidents happen in Tehran every day. This could have been just another one of them. But the worst threats were directed against my wife. They said, ‘We will arrest and bring your wife here, and you know what will happen to her next.’ The thought sent shivers down my spine.”
Rafizadeh’s weight fell from 95 to 45 kilos and eventually, he says, he “broke” and agreed to a forced TV confession along with other detained journalists. But even agreeing to confess did not stop the threats, and his interrogators repeated them. Tehran’s prosecutor at the time was Saeed Mortazavi, known as Iran’s “Butcher of the Press,” who is currently serving a two-year jail term. “My interrogator and Mortazavi verbally threatened me,” Rafizadeh says. “My interrogator said, ‘You have three adorable kids. Take care of them.’ Then Mortazavi said, ‘If, God forbid, they have an accident and die, what would happen? Be careful not to make any mistakes, or something bad will happen to your family and kids, and you’ll regret your actions for the rest of your life.’ I was already down, but this threat completely broke me. I went in front of the camera and acknowledged the six charges within half an hour.”
After recording the forced confessions, he was released on bail, as were most other detainees. However, according to Human Rights Watch, on December 10, the father of detained journalist Ali Mazroui (who was also the president of the Association of Iranian Journalists) wrote a public letter to President Mohammed Khatami, implicating the judiciary in the torture and secret detention of the detainees.
Witness for the Prosecution
Immediately afterward, Saeed Mortazavi filed charges against Mazroui for libel. On December 11, 2004, Mortazavi ordered the detention of three of the formerly released individuals — Shahram Rafizadeh, Omid Memarian and Roozbeh Mir Ebrahimi — as witnesses for the prosecution in the case. These three journalists and Javad Gholam Tamimi, a journalist who had remained in detention since October 18, were brought to Mortazavi’s office.
Mortazavi threatened the four detainees with lengthy prison sentences unless they denied Mazroui’s allegations. They were interrogated for three consecutive days for eight hours each day. On December 14, the four detainees were brought in front of a televised “press conference” arranged by Mortazavi, and were forced to deny that they had been subjected to solitary confinement, torture and ill-treatment during their earlier detention. That evening, Iran’s state-controlled television broadcast videos that showed the four detainees saying that their jailers had treated them as “gently as flowers.”
At the time, Joe Stork, the Washington director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East division, said: “If there are any credible charges against these journalists, the judiciary should hold fair trials instead of forcing them to appear on television and say their torturers treated them well."
Following his release for a second time, Rafizadeh left Iran. After his escape, on April 20, 2005, a judiciary spokesman said that an official investigation confirmed that his and the other detainees’ confessions had been coerced. “The interrogators and prosecutors committed a series of negligent and careless acts in this case that led to the abuse of the detainees’ words and writings in producing confession letters,” the spokesman said.
But in spite of this admission and even though he had left Iran for good, in February 2009 Rafizadeh was put on trial in absentia along with his three co-defendants — Omid Memarian, Roozbeh Mir Ebrahimi and Javad Gholam Tamimi. All, except Gholam Tamimi, had left Iran by the time the trial was held. Branch 1059 of Tehran’s Judiciary Court sentenced them each to prison terms of up to three years and three months, as well as flogging. Rafizadeh was sentenced to nine months in prison and 20 lashes on charges including “participating in the establishment of illegal organizations,” “membership in illegal organizations,” “propaganda against the regime,” “disseminating lies” and “disturbing public order.”
Shahram Rafizadeh now lives in Toronto, Canada, and works with Radio Farda, the Persian-language service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
Updated: May 12, 2018
“Iran cracks down on blog protests,” BBC, October 13, 2004
“Iran: Tehran Cracks Down On Independent Internet Journalists,” Radio Liberty, December 17, 2004
“Judiciary Uses Coercion to Cover Up Torture,” (HRW), December 20, 2004
دادگاه شهرام رفيع زاده به صورت غيرعلنی برگزار شد, Reporters without Borders (RSF), December 3, 2006
“Four Journalists Sentenced to Prison, Floggings,” Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI), February 10, 2009
“Witness Statement: Shahram Rafizadeh”, Iran Human Rights Documentation Center (IRANHRDC), February 26, 2009
“The Bloggers Must Be Acquitted and Judges Be Put on Trial,” Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI), November 4, 2010
“When Mr. Zarif Lied, I Felt Deep Revulsion,” IranWire, May 3, 2015
“Shahram Rafizadeh - Sexual Innuendo,” Journalism Is Not A Crime (Video), March 3, 2016
“Shahram Rafizadeh – ‘Miracle Room,’” Journalism Is Not A Crime (Video), March 14, 2016
“Reformist Journalist Tortured Under Ghalibaf’s Police Command Demands Accountability,” Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI), May 9, 2017
“’Butcher of the Press’ Mortazavi in Jail — Finally,” IranWire, April 21, 2018