Hossein Derakhshan, the pioneer of blogging in Iran, is a media researcher at the MIT Media Lab.
On New Year’s Eve, 2008, Saeed, Nima and I were whispering from the bottom of the small food window of our solitary cells in 2A ward in Evin prison in Tehran. At midnight, we rang in 2009, saluting each other with plastic cups of tap water, and pledged to celebrate New Year’s Eve together a decade later, in 2019 – in Butchart Gardens in Victoria, Saeed suggested.
Last week, Nima reminded me of our pledge. He was released from prison in March, 2009, and now lives and works in the United States. I was released six years later, in November, 2014, but Saeed Malekpour is still in prison, serving a life sentence, and nobody seems to care – especially the Canadian government.
Saeed was a software engineer in British Columbia who, along with his wife, had immigrated to Canada as an independent worker. He was arrested two days after returning to Iran to take care of his father, who was suddenly diagnosed with a brain tumour. Saeed and Nima were among dozens of young male Iranians who were captured by the virtual-morality section of the Revolutionary Guard for alleged ties to Iranian pornographic websites.
I was a Canadian citizen when I was arrested in November, 2008, one month after Saeed and Nima. My case was political, and quite different from theirs, which was moral. I was a reformist journalist and blogger deeply detested by the Iranian hardliners – not only for bringing blogs to Iran, but also for my own critical writing and public attempts to counter the mutual dehumanizing propaganda by Iran and Israel when they were on the brink of war.
The government of Stephen Harper did not lift a finger for me. Mr. Harper’s silence and lack of any engagement with the Iranian government, when the two countries still had full diplomatic ties, allowed Iranian hardliners at the Revolutionary Guard to keep me in solitary confinement for eight straight months.
Every day during those eight dark months in solitary, and until Mr. Harper decided unilaterally to end all diplomatic ties with Iran in 2012, I was hoping that the Canadian government would do something.
I did not expect Mr. Harper to care about an NDP-supporting, recently naturalized Canadian with a Muslim name from Iran as much as president Barack Obama cared about U.S. citizens (or, in some cases, Canadians who worked for U.S. employers). But the Canadian government could have demanded that Iran take me out of that endless solitary confinement, or at the very least grant permission for my parents to visit, or even allow books and magazines when, after eight months, I was losing my sanity; they did not even offer any help over my legal defence once I was allowed a lawyer – 18 months into my detention.
I was extremely lucky that, after years of trying, a couple of my father’s influential business connections and some of my blog’s conservative readers who admired my patriotic stand against the U.S. hawks in mid-2000s eventually managed to persuade the Supreme Leader to release me after six years.
But Saeed, who always avoided politics, is still in prison, without a single day of furlough (or leave, which is commonly given to non-violent convicts in exchange for a large amount of bail). In 2016, his appalling death sentence was commuted to life in prison by the Supreme Leader in response to a request from a respected and senior reformist politician, Behzad Nabavi, who had spent a couple of years in jail with Saeed after the famous 2009 protests over that year’s disputed election. Saeed’s rapidly deteriorating physical and mental health deserves a serious new push by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his cabinet.
My recommendation, based on my own experience, is a personal appeal by the Prime Minister to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to free Saeed on humanitarian grounds – and for his mother, whose life has been shattered since Saeed’s arrest, and by her husband’s death and her other son’s serious illness.
Alternatively, or additionally, Mr. Trudeau should persuade high-ranking global religious leaders to make a similar request.
Saeed developed community software that could be used for any purpose, and has denied any involvement in pornographic websites. But even if he had made and run the alleged website, as he was initially forced to confess under duress, he would not deserve one day of this excruciating ordeal in a liberal justice system such as Canada’s.
I spent more time with Saeed a few years after our nightly whisperings. (The guards had overheard most of these conversations, and separated and punished us after a few weeks.) He is a strong, clever, patriotic, generous and ethical man who I believe can contribute a lot to Iran.
But the Iranian hardliners have chosen to ostracize, antagonize and, in cases such as Saeed’s, neutralize thousands of other educated Iranian youth. Canada has the power to advocate for Saeed’s freedom. It did not do anything for me – but it should for him.