WASHINGTON - An Iranian court has sentenced three activists to long prison terms four years after they were arrested for celebrating the birthday of an ancient Persian ruler at a public gathering criticized by Iran’s Islamist rulers, according to a knowledgeable source.
In a Nov. 12 interview with VOA Persian from Iran, the source said the Revolutionary Court in the northeastern city of Mashhad issued the prison terms to local residents Ali Sepantamehr, Mohsen Miraftab and Majid Rahimzadeh on Oct. 28, 10 days after putting them on trial.
The source said the three men were convicted of a variety of security offenses, including allegedly running a Telegram channel aimed at disrupting national security, being a member of an illegal opposition group, spreading antigovernment propaganda and insulting Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Sepantamehr was sentenced to a total of 18 years in prison for his multiple convictions, while Rahimzadeh’s sentences totaled 21 years and Miraftab’s sentences totaled 17 years, the source said.
As Iranian law requires that convicts serve only the longest of multiple sentences, the effective prison terms for Sepantamehr and Rahimzadeh would be 10 years and for Miraftab, five years, the source added.
VOA could not independently confirm the details of the three men’s verdicts because it is barred from reporting inside Iran. There has been no comment from Iranian officials in state media about the activists’ cases in recent weeks.
Iranian authorities arrested the three men on Oct. 31, 2016, in the southwestern city of Marvdasht, three days after they had joined the celebration of the birthday of ancient ruler Cyrus the Great at his tomb an 85-kilometer drive away. Many of the thousands of people who were at the gathering used the occasion to chant antigovernment slogans expressing anger about official mismanagement and corruption.
The three activists were released on a bail of $7,000 each in mid-November 2016 and returned to Mashhad, where they have remained free. Despite the sentences they apparently received on Oct. 28, they would not have to report to a prison until after an appellate court reviews and potentially finalizes those verdicts in the coming weeks or months.
Cyrus the Great was the ancient ruler of the Achaemenid Empire, also known as the First Persian Empire, in the 6th century BC. In recent years, large crowds of Iranians nostalgic for their nation’s pre-Islamic glory have marked his late October birthday, which they call “Cyrus Day,” by gathering at his tomb near the ancient city of Pasargadae to celebrate his legacy.
The source who spoke to VOA said Iranian prosecutors presented no evidence of any crimes by the three men at their recent trial. The case against the activists relied solely upon a report compiled by Mashhad’s intelligence office, which accused the men of seditious activities including a speech made by one of them at the Cyrus Day event on Oct. 28, 2016, and the use of Telegram to post comments praising other aspects of Iran’s pre-Islamic history.
A video shared on social media at the time of the 2016 Cyrus Day event, whose authenticity VOA Persian has verified, showed Ali Sepantamehr standing near the ancient ruler’s tomb and making a speech to a large crowd that surrounded him. In the speech, Sepantamehr expressed pride in Cyrus the Great as a leader who promoted freedom of religion and other human rights.
Days after the 2016 Cyrus Day, an Iranian prosecutor told state media that authorities had arrested several leaders of the gathering for allegedly undermining Iran’s Islamist ruling system.
VOA’s source said the three activists also had used a Telegram channel called “Sepantamehr’s Friends” to share comments about a seminal work of Persian literature called the Shahnameh.
Some of Iran’s Shiite Islamist ruling clerics have frowned upon the epic poem as it recounts the history of pre-Islamic Persia in mythical and heroic terms.