An Iranian internet activist sentenced to prison last year by a U.S.-sanctioned judge known for harsh treatment of dissidents has started serving a five-year jail term recently upheld by an appellate court.
In a Monday phone call with VOA Persian, an Iran-based source familiar with the case said activist Ataollah Rezaei surrendered himself the day before to Iranian judicial authorities who had summoned him to their Tehran office. The source said the authorities transferred him on Monday to Langerud prison near the city of Qom where he lived, 150 kilometers south of the Iranian capital, to serve the prison sentence.
The source said a Tehran appellate court upheld Rezaei’s five-year prison sentence last week, clearing the way for authorities to summon the activist to start the jail term. He was arrested in Qom in May 2019 by Iranian cyberpolice and released on bail in August of that year, pending trial. The nature of the online activities that prompted Rezaei’s arrest has remained unclear.
A lower Revolutionary Court had convicted the activist last December on three charges of “gathering and colluding to commit crimes against national security,” insulting Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and spreading anti-government propaganda, according to Iranian rights activists. The court imposed sentences of five years, two years and one year for the charges, respectively.
Rezaei’s effective jail term is five years rather than eight because under Article 134 of Iran’s penal code, defendants serve the longest prison sentence in cases involving convictions on multiple charges.
The source told VOA that Rezaei’s lawyer plans to appeal the upholding of the activist’s jail term to Iran’s Supreme Court in the hope of lessening the sentence.
The Iranian Revolutionary Court judge who issued the verdict was Abolghassem Salavati, whom the U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned in December for delivering harsh sentences, including death sentences, to political prisoners, human rights activists and peaceful demonstrators.
The informed source said one basis for appealing Rezaei’s five-year jail term is Salavati’s refusal to give the activist access to a lawyer for the December 2019 trial. The source said Rezaei was able to choose a lawyer to work on his defense after Salavati convicted him.
In a December statement explaining its rationale for sanctioning Salavati, the Treasury Department said Iranian Revolutionary Court judges, including Salavati, have acted as “both judge and prosecutor, deprived prisoners of access to lawyers, and intimidated defendants.”
Access to legal counsel is guaranteed in Iran’s constitution adopted after its 1979 Islamic Revolution. But in a 2016 report on Iran’s latest criminal code that took effect the year before, the rights group Amnesty International said “various laws including the 2013 Islamic Penal Code … undermine … fair trial guarantees by including restrictive and vaguely worded provisions.”
“Combined with major flaws in the structure and administration of the (Iranian) criminal justice system, the result is a continued proliferation of harsh and unjust sentences following grossly unfair trials,” Amnesty wrote.