Iran blogger's death stirs up a hornet's nest

There was little about Sattar Beheshti that made him stand out in a working-class suburb south of Tehran called Robat Karim.

Like many of his peers, the 35-year-old labourer was devout and lived at home with his mother. But his life changed when he started a blog called “My Life for Iran” last year.

His entries often focused on the struggles of the working class as well as the political restrictions in Iran, sometimes mixed with personal anecdotes from Beheshti’s daily life.

As months passed, the tone on the blog became sharper and more political, with unveiled criticism of the establishment and even the Supreme Leader, a red line in the Islamic Republic.In one recent post, Beheshti criticised a speech made by the leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, at a meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement in Tehran with the title “You presented a bunch of lies instead of a speech” superimposed over a picture of the cleric.

Other posts faulted Iran’s unwavering support for Hezbollah in Lebanon or highlighted the plight of human rights activists.Retaliation quickly followed.

“Yesterday (on Tuesday) they threatened me and told me your mother will soon be wearing black,” Beheshti wrote in a post on October 29.The next day security agents from Iran’s cyber police, known by the acronym FATA, arrested him. His bruised and battered body was handed to his family a week later, his death the result of torture, according to a smuggled letter from fellow prisoners.

The backlash was swift and furious, especially from other bloggers, even pro-government ones, disturbed at the fate of a pious young man with no known history of political activism. Their most pointed criticism was directed at the cyber police and their campaign to stop any attempt at a "velvet revolution" in the Islamic Republic through the Internet. Government officials have not denied the abuse.

“This individual was beaten but this beating was not in a manner that would result in
his death,” Attorney-General Gholam Hossein Mohseni-Ejehi told a news conference on December 3. Within a month of Beheshti’s death, seven policemen were arrested and the head of the cyber police was ousted, a dramatic turn of events in a divisive scandal that has shocked Iran.As international pressure mounts over Iran’s disputed nuclear program and harsh economic sanctions bite, the leadership is wary of domestic turmoil, especially with a potentially turbulent presidential election due in June.

Beheshti’s death exposed Iran’s political fissures as a handful of lawmakers badgered
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's government and the judiciary into ordering an inquiry.But the most effective tool in publicising Beheshti's unusual death was the one he had chosen - the Internet. “I really do believe this is one of the great examples of the impact of the Internet in Iran,” said Mahmood Enayat, director of the Iran Media program at the University of Pennsylvania and the founder of Small Media.

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