U.K. resident Roya Nobakht was visiting Iran a few months ago. While there, she visited and posted on a Facebook page — one that Iran’s religious leaders don’t like.
Now she’s in prison serving a 20-year term, and her family fears for her life.
Nobakht, a naturalized British citizen who lives in Manchester, was visiting family in the Iranian city of Fars when she was arrested. She has been in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison ever since. A family member told VentureBeat she had been brutalized, beaten, and raped.
Since she was picked up by Iranian agents, Nobakht was allowed only one phone call.
“She was crying. It was horrible. Horrible. She said, ‘I can’t tell you much, but I won’t be seeing you anymore,'” the source said, overcome with emotion and nearly sobbing.
“She said, ‘I have a little bit of a problem. And I’m not coming back.'”
She was convicted of insulting “Islamic sanctities” in a Tehran courtroom two weeks ago and was immediately sentenced to 20 years in prison.
Along with Nobakht, seven other Iranians were also caught up in the government’s social media dragnet.
Mostly students, they received sentences ranging from 8 to 20 years.
The feared Cyber Army of Iran, which monitors Iranian Internet usage, noticed a spike in traffic to the Facebook page and made the arrests. Iran has since banned all social media in the country, Iranian activists told us, including Instagram, Twitter, and WhatsApp.
“She is not doing anything political. She is a simple housewife who was visiting family like she did every year,” the family member, who lives in England, told VentureBeat.
“Here,” the source said, referencing England, “we live in a free country. In Iran, the mullahs want to control everything and control you.”
Facebook, along with Twitter, was first blocked in Iran during the 2009 elections. The restriction was technical, preventing local users from accessing these sites through local ISPs.
Residents have circumnavigated the ban by using hotspots on their smartphones, laptops, and tablets, and also using proxy servers and Turkish ISPs.
But the mullahs perceive social media as a direct threat to the regime and are clamping down with brute force when the filters don’t work.
Indeed, sources inside the anxious capital of Tehran told VentureBeat the mullahs have made accessing Facebook a crime, with those caught violating the law facing the same fate as Nobakht.
In an email, a young social media user in Tehran, unrelated to Nobakht, put it this way:
I am fearing as well. What if the next target is me or people around me? You know, the definition of crime has been changed here in Iran. Being a regular Facebook user is now a great crime, but raping women or even children by Basij members is something normal.
The Basji are the mullah’s private army of enforcers, many of them drawn from impoverished neighborhoods. They answer directly to the mullahs, have a legacy of well documented brutality, and are feared by a large swath of the public.
As for Nobakht, the source said family members became alarmed when they showed up to London’s Heathrow airport to pick her up from a Turkish Airways flight at the appointed time. She never de-planed, and frantic calls were made from England to family members in Iran.
The family member, quoted here, then travelled to Iran looking for her and received the single phone call from Nobakht from Evin prison. That is the last contact family members have had with her.
Nobakht emigrated to England in 1998, joining her husband who had arrived in the U.K. earlier.
“She loves Facebook and uses it a lot to keep in touch with her family,” our source told us. “She had a laptop with her and was posting some jokes. Nothing really. But I really don’t know because nobody will tell me anything.”
Along with Nobakht, the names of the arrested students include Amir Golestani, Masoud Ghasemkhani, Fariborz Karfardar, Seyed Masoud Seyed Talebi, Amin Akramipour, Mehdi Reyshahri, and Naghmeh Shirazi. Nobakht and Shirazi are the only two women of the eight.
They, too, are thought to be at Evin prison.
The source asked not to be named for fear of reprisals against family members still in Iran. The family is working with Britain’s Foreign Office, but as the country has no formal diplomatic ties to Iran, it remains to be seen what, if any, help they can give.
The British embassy in Washington, D.C. did not return numerous phone calls for comment.
As it has done previously, Facebook said it had no comment.
When told that Facebook had declined speak on the situation, the family member expressed sadness.
“Roya loves using Facebook,” the source said. “This is just terrible.”