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Iranian cleric blogs for free expression

Iranian cleric blogs for free expression

Blogging might not sound an appropriate hobby for a senior Iranian government official, particularly one who is a Muslim cleric.

But presidential adviser Mohammad Ali Abthai has turned the practice of writing Internet journals, or (we)blogging, into a powerful tool against the reformist government's hardline foes and a means to reach out to the country's disenchanted youth.

Abtahi, 45, a mid-ranking cleric who last year quit his post as vice-president, says he learns more chatting with young people on the Internet than he does in any government report.

"A lot of them criticise the (political) system and sometimes I tell them they are right. I talk to them very freely," he said in an interview at his spartan office in affluent north Tehran.

His popular web site www.webneveshteha.com (webneveshteha means "web writings" in Persian) receives dozens of messages a day, to which he replies scrupulously, often working until three o'clock in the morning.

"What do you think about moving to a secular political system? Yes or No???" asked one visitor, who called himself Gomnam.

"Naturally the system of any country should be chosen by the majority of the people," was Abtahi's subtle reply.

While other Iranian clerics and officials also have Web sites, none are prepared to engage in debate on such sensitive issues with the public, Abtahi says.

"I am the only window of the government that people can openly freely. That kind of contact between society and a cleric is very important and very unusual," he said.

Internet use has proliferated in Iran in recent years. Official figures suggest there are more than four million users in the country of 68 million and the country ranks fourth in the world in terms of active weblogs.

But Internet use, like other forms of entertainment and expression in Iran, is under threat.

Late last year more than 20 young Internet journalists, web technicians and bloggers were arrested and held for several weeks on charges ranging from endangering national security to insulting senior officials of the clerical establishment.

Soon after their release Abtahi revealed details of their treatment in prison where they were kept in solitary confinement, subjected to physical and psychological torture and forced to write confessions admitting to their crimes.

Writing in his web log Abtahi described how members of a constitutional commission wiped tears from their eyes as they listened to the webloggers describe the beatings they received.

It was a daring move but it worked. Abtahi's writings brought international attention to the case. Human rights groups and foreign governments called for an immediate inquiry.

Local newspapers, normally too scared of closure to publish anything critical of the judiciary, began writing their own accounts of the webloggers' ordeals.

Finally, Judiciary chief Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi-Shahroudi met the webloggers and after hearing their claims promised to bring those responsible to justice.

"There's been a change in the atmosphere," Abtahi said. "Now instead of the webloggers being under pressure it's the judiciary which is feeling the heat.

"They'll definitely think twice before doing something like this again," he said.

Abtahi's intervention was crucial, said Hanif Mazroui, 26, one of those arrested.

"He was the only official who bravely accepted to write and talk about our case," he said. "As there is no free circulation of news in Iran, he accepted to pay the price of reflecting our views."

Fereshteh Ghazi, whose nose was reportedly broken during one interrogation session in jail, agreed.

"Abtahi actually pressured high-ranking officials to follow-up our case. Because of our situation, we were scared to talk, but Abtahi had no such fear."

The battle against censorship, however, is far from over.

The judiciary recently ordered local Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to block access to several popular web sites including Orkut (www.orkut.com) a global online friendship portal where Iran contributes the third highest number of members.

Hardline officials say Orkut is immoral. Many entries do contain naked pictures of members and links to pornographic sites.

But Abtahi, whose own Orkut entry boasts hundreds of friends, argues it does more good than harm.

"I myself believe that Orkut, with all its negative points, should be encouraged," he said. "There are worse things for people to do."

Abtahi recently had to move his own Website to a server in the United States after a series of problems he believes were related to his writings about the webloggers case.

At the Website, which he launched in 2003, he posts whimsical anecdotes about life in Iran's normally secretive corridors of power and amusing pictures of officials caught off-guard by his camera mounted on a mobile telephone.

But reading and replying to the messages sent in by young Iranians gives him the greatest satisfaction, he said.

"If you had another chance to return to your childhood again, would you become a cleric again?" asked Hossein, another visitor to his site.

"Right now I am a cleric and it is impossible to go back to my childhood again," Abtahi answered.

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