A LENGTHY prison sentence handed to a young student activist in Iran has raised doubts President Hassan Rowhani can deliver the political and social reforms that he promised on the campaign trail.
Maryam Shafipour has been jailed for seven years after refusing to abandon a campaign of peaceful protest. She is charged with “spreading propaganda against the system”.
Maryam Shafi’ Pour was arrested on 27 July 2013 after obeying a summons to appear before the Prosecutor’s Office at Evin Prison in Tehran.
After her arrest she spent over two months in solitary confinement, with no access to a lawyer.
On 2 March 2014, the Revolutionary Court of Tehran found her guilty of “spreading propaganda against the system”, “assembly and collusion against national security”, and “membership of the Advocacy Council for the Right to Education” which is not officially recognized by the Iranian authorities.
Judge Salvati, who sentenced Shafipour, is known by many Iranians as the Hanging Judge, or the judge of death.
He earned this title by sentencing more than a dozen protesters to death since the controversial 2009 election period when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad claimed to have obtained over 60% of the vote, and won another term as President.
“Maryam Shafipour’s conviction is a chilling reminder of how little Iran’s human rights record has changed since 2009, when students were arrested in droves during post election unrest.
A relative of Shafipour told the opposition website Kaleme that the activist had been under pressure from her interrogators to confess and had been mistreated and tortured in jail.
Her sentence has been followed by further arrests in recent days, a development that activists fear marks a new strategy by Tehran: to stifle dissent at home while maintaining the co-operative image fostered by Mr Rowhani abroad.
His apparent stance has raised hopes of a deal to end the crisis over Iran’s nuclear program.
Rather than the mass purges that followed the disputed 2009 presidential election, reformists believe the judiciary will instead hand down occasional ruthless sentences like Ms Shafipour’s, to send a warning to others.
“You don’t know what your punishment might be, and that unpredictability ensures the survival of the regime,” one Tehran-based activist said.
The quiet crackdown has unsettled the legions of supporters who swept Mr Rowhani to power in last summer’s election.
“If Rowhani cannot deliver on those promises we will look at other options. He has four years to deliver and if he cannot implement change he will not be elected again,” said Farshad Gourbanpour, an activist for the President’s campaign team.
Such warnings from Mr Rowhani’s supporters barely six months into his four-year term underline the pressures on him from all sides.
Already fending off attacks by some regime hardliners, the President is also tasked with overseeing the nuclear talks, mending Tehran’s relationship with the West and rebuilding the shattered economy.
Sources close to the Rowhani camp insist his desire for reform is genuine, but say that he faces heavy resistance from conservatives.
Before his charm offensive at the UN in September, signalling Iran’s readiness to open nuclear negotiations, Mr Rowhani secured the release of 11 prominent political prisoners. Since then, however, prisoner releases have dried up.
One issue in particular hangs over the Rowhani administration: Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, the leaders of the Green Movement during the 2009 election, have been held under house arrest for more than three years, and failure to secure their release would constitute a betrayal in the eyes of many supporters.
“For many supporters, the nuclear talks are not the priority. Releasing Mousavi and Karroubi is a key demand, we cannot just forget about it,” said Mr Gourbanpour.
Mr Rowhani also appears to be backing away from campaign promises to allow greater freedom of the press after dozens of reformist newspapers and websites were closed.
Two reformist newspapers have been closed in the months since the President took office and the Association of Iranian Journalists, which he pledged to reopen, remains banned.