I Am His Voice: Hossein Ronaghi

In his second-to-last post on Twitter (below), Hossein Ronaghi wrote, “The response to opinions is not prison.” But he is in prison, Evin Prison in Tehran, Iran, and has spent the last six and a half years fighting for his freedom of expression, his freedom, and now even his life itself.

Ronaghi is a political prisoner in Iran and is serving a sentence of 15 years for convictions on charges ranging from spreading propaganda to insulting Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. What made him most dangerous in the eyes of the Iranian government was his work helping his fellow citizens circumvent Iran’s official Internet censorship as a member of a group called “Iran Proxy.” Thanks to Ronaghi and his colleagues, Iranians could avoid Iranian propaganda, which is something Iran’s government considers an act of propaganda itself.

He was arrested after the protests that followed the disputed presidential election in 2009. Many international monitors of that election are convinced that the results were fraudulent (several districts yielded results in which the voter participation was more than 100%, among other irregularities). Protests erupted when the results were announced almost immediately after the polls closed. Clean, unvarnished communications such as what Iran Proxy was making available to users was essential and working for Iran Proxy was hazardous. Ronaghi and his colleagues went beyond mere bravery in building this communications network.

He was arrested in December 2009 and, before charges were brought against him, Ronaghi spent 10 months in solitary confinement. His health began to falter almost immediately. A young man (he turned 30 last summer), his kidneys are irreparably damaged; according to a 2015 blog post, Ronaghi reported last year that his left kidney is “non-functioning.”

Iran’s authorities granted Ronaghi a medical parole in 2012, but he was arrested later that year while helping provide medical relief after the East Azerbaijan earthquakes (he is from that region of Iran). Charged with harming national security, he successfully defended himself. He was still facing the charges from his 2009 activism, however, and his 2010 sentence of 15 years in prison has been repeatedly upheld.

Ronaghi spent 2014 in and out of prison hospitals, was released for humanitarian reasons at the end of 2014, re-arrested in 2015, was allowed to post bail for a medical leave in June 2015, and then he was charged with breaking his bail agreement and with attempting to flee the country. In January of this year, he was ordered back to Evin Prison.

When he was served with the notice demanding his return to prison, Ronaghi wrote, “Considering the circumstances and my condition, the insistence for my return to prison is senseless and against the law, provided that according to article 502 of the criminal code procedure and parole, they could keep me out of prison. This is while the medical inspectors of the prison have mentioned prison conditions are dangerous and not suitable for keeping a prisoner in my condition.”

On January 18, he posted on his Facebook page:

My not returning will result in confiscation of the collateral set for my bail, which is morally wrong and unprincipled. Seizing the collateral would be legal only if I was not reachable or my whereabouts were unknown in case of need for arrest. Despite the fact that I provided my address to judicial authorities for my arrest at their will, this did not happen and ultimately I was told per orders of the IRGC Intelligence unit I was to return to prison.
Also as my mother says, ‘This is our homeland and we are not the ones who must leave.’
Tomorrow I will go to the Prosecutor’s office, will be taken into custody and imprisoned. What is clear to me is that I will always be beside my family and my friends.

On January 20, Ronaghi’s bail was revoked, his parents’ house was collected as payment on the €500,000 bail, and he was re-imprisoned in Evin Prison after turning himself in at a prosecutor’s office. (In 2015, Ronaghi’s father was sentenced to four months in jail for speaking with foreign journalists about his son’s plight; the sick cruelty of this is neither Ronaghi nor his parents knew Ronaghi’s father had been charged with anything. His trial, conviction, and sentencing hearings were conducted without him present.)

And this is where matters remain for Hossein Ronaghi. He is in jail for his opinions. A group called Iran Political Prisoners is fighting for him. Amnesty International is also fighting for Hossein Ronaghi. His is case UA 236/13.

Iran officially claims that it has no political prisoners. This is demonstrably false and merely a matter of wordplay on that government’s part. A campaign called “I Am His/Her Voice” was launched in 2015 on behalf of the many individuals serving time in Iran’s prisons for their opinions, even though Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif insists that Iran has no such thing as political prisoners and “does not jail people for their opinion.” It is his very first sentence in this interview with Charlie Rose:

Ronaghi’s last posts were bravely directed at Mr. Zarif. That phrase, “jail for opinions,” is a rich one, and it is important that both Mr. Zarif, in his appearance on Charlie Rose, and Hossein Ronaghi, in his final Tweets from free life, used it, to reflect the two opposite versions of reality. They can’t both be true. Only one can be true. I believe Hossein Ronaghi. He is in jail for his opinions. And he is facing death.

* * * *
Anneli Sandberg provided invaluable guidance and support as I began to write about this story.

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