As online voices of opposition across the Middle East grow in strength, the tough punishments dealt out by the region's ‘cyber police’ continue to have devastating consequences.
Last month, 35-year-old Iranian blogger and Facebook activist, Sattar Beheshti, was arrested on suspicion of 'actions against national security on social networks and Facebook'. Just a week later his family were told that Beheshti had died.
Opposition websites were quick to pick up on the tragic tale, claiming the online dissident had been tortured to death, enduring brutal beatings in Ward 350 of Tehran's notorious Evin prison.
Last week - whilst still in the dark about the cause of his death - Beheshti's family were reportedly forced to bury the young blogger's body in their hometown of Rabat Karim. International campaign group, Reporters Without Borders, claim the family was under threat by Iranian authorities not to inform the media. The BBC reported that Beheshti's brother-in-law was the only person allowed to attend the burial.
According to Reporters Without Borders, Beheshti's death is part of a wider problem of impunity within Iran’s police force. The international NGO asked for further action to be taken: “We ask that the special UN rapporteur on human rights in Iran, Ahmed Shaheed, be allowed to enter Iran to conduct an independent investigation into this death and other similar cases.”
For those living in the region, the problem is a familiar one. Across the Arab Spring countries, the abuse of power by security forces was a defining factor in sparking the revolutions that overthrew corrupt regimes.
Beheshti's death bears striking similarities to that of 28-year-old Egyptian Khaled Said. In June 2010, Said was arrested at an internet cafe in Alexandria after reportedly posting a video of police officers sharing the spoils of a drug bust.
He later died at the scene under suspicious circumstances. While multiple eyewitnesses claimed Said was beaten to death by police, authorities tried to cover their tracks by accusing the activist of swallowing his own drugs.
Both Beheshti’s and Said’s family were allegedly denied access to the bodies following their mysterious deaths.
'We are all Khaled Said', the Facebook page set up in honor or the slain Egyptian activist, quickly became a social media phenomenon and lay the groundwork for the mass protests to come.
Under pressure from the international community, Iran's National Security Committee has finally started an investigation into Beheshti’s death but many Iranians have little faith in the formal process. As yet, Iranian activists have not had the same impact as Khaled Said in their own country. However, as the Egyptian revolution has demonstrated, the power of social media harnessed can overthrow a government.
Do you think Beheshti's death will spark an online revolution? And will the National Security Committee investigation be a fair one? Leave us your comments below!
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