New mobile apps are shaping Iran’s civil society

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF AL JAZEERA)

 

New mobile apps are shaping Iran’s civil society

Iranian rights activists are creating hi-tech solutions to promote civil liberties, despite frequent internet shutdowns.

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 During recent protests, the Iranian government shut down messaging apps Telegram and Instagram [Vahid Salemi/AP]
During recent protests, the Iranian government shut down messaging apps Telegram and Instagram [Vahid Salemi/AP]

popular uprising took hold of Iran in the final week of 2017, with thousands taking to the streets to protest against the dire economic situation in the country.

Using smartphone apps such as Telegram and Instagram, demonstrators quickly spread their message, and within days, protests erupted in dozens of cities across Iran.

In the government crackdown that followed, more than 25 people were killed and hundreds arrested.

The spread of protests once again showed the power of technology and social media, highlighted by repeated efforts by the government to block access to the mobile apps used by the protesters.

After realising the potential of these apps, many in Iran – a country with about 48 million smartphones – are looking at ways to leverage technology in their pursuit of civil liberties.

One of the latest apps is Hafez, which translates as “to protect”. Named after the famous Persian poet whose words frequently targeted religious hypocrisy, the app offers users a collection of human rights-related information.

Foremost, it is a virtual rolodex of human rights lawyers in Iran, which allows users to access legal information regarding human rights.

However, Hafez is more than just a list of telephone numbers, Keyvan Rafiee, an Iranian human rights activist, told Al Jazeera.

“Users receive daily human rights news; [it] allows them to send news of human rights violations securely; [it] disseminates important legal information to users if they are arrested, and provides the contact information for attorneys who can assist,” said Rafiee, the founder of Human Rights Activists Iran (HRAI).

Rafiee, who has been arrested for his activism six times, said having a record of human rights violations is instrumental for protesters in Iran.

“Monitoring violations that take place on a daily basis can improve human rights conditions since independent organisations are not permitted to work in Iran,” Rafiee said.

Hafez is just one of several apps Iranians are using to promote civil liberties and human rights.

“The technology is a tool, not an end result,” said Firouzeh Mahmoudi, founder of United4Iran, an organisation focussed on promoting civil society.

“For us, the main question was how to engage with the vast majority of Iranians who do not go out on the street for every protest,” she said. “We saw this niche that was not being filled; building Iran’s civic tech sector.”

One of its most prominent projects is the Iran Prison Atlas, a compendium of judges, prisons and, most importantly, political prisoners currently held by the Iranian government.

The database has played an important role in creating an overview of the number of political prisoners in Iran and has been used by the United Nations Human Rights Council as a source in their evaluations of the human rights situation in the country.

“The atlas also helps when people get out of Iran,” Mahmoudi told Al Jazeera. “When they apply for asylum, our documentation is a good way to prove they are not making up the story, since we have a record of it.

“We share and compare lists with a large number of people we work with because what we don’t want to have is false positives,” she said.

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“A lot of time, when people leave prison, they are quiet about it, and we don’t want a situation where the government says our information is not accurate’.”

Although technologies like Prison Atlas allow for more transparency, working on it also comes with inherent risk in a country that regularly cracks down on dissent or activism.

To ensure the safety of the people working on and using the applications, Mahmoudi says there is a certain degree of anonymity.

“It is very much a decentralised network of people, we use secure methods to communicate, and we have an extensive security protocol in order to guarantee the safety of the people involved,” Mahmoudi said.

But not all apps are at odds with the authorities’ goals, which has led to some surprising results.

“Governments are not a monolithic thing; rather they have many different sides, so sometimes they end up promoting one of our apps,” Mahmoudi said.

That’s because not all the apps are political; some promote sexual health or combat domestic violence, for example.

Mahmoudi said women’s rights in Iran are not well protected, especially in marriage. Therefore, two of the apps provide examples of language for marriage contracts to make it easier for women to retain their rights to a divorce and custody of their children.

“Our sexual health app also has information on sexually transmitted diseases, a menstruation calendar and information about contraceptives, which made it one of our more popular apps,” Mahmoudi said.

“The domestic violence app allows users to contact people within a trusted circle with the push of a button in case you’re in danger, and it outlines people’s rights when confronted with abuse,” she added.

As a result, women have approached Mahmoudi and her organisation to thank them, saying the information provided by the apps made them feel safer and helped them leave their husbands.

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Rafiee said the same thing happened with Hafez, the app that promotes human rights.

“We were surprised by the scope of the usage of the application; people from small villages to large cities around Iran, who reported various data, from corruption to bureaucratic mismanagement,” he said.

“Additionally, a number of attorneys reported that they have been contacted for legal consultation.”

However, reaching more people remains a challenge, mainly because the Iranian government regularly blocks internet access, especially during protests.

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During the most recent protests, the government shut down messaging apps such as Telegram and Instagram, preventing people from communicating with each other.

“Iranians are young, they’re technologically savvy, and they’re educated, so it’s really critical Iran stays online,” Mahmoudi said. “When the internet was shut down for a short time during the last uprising, it was an issue.”

According to Rafiee, the reason behind these blocks is more than just preventing protesters from organising. “Free and uncensored circulation of information opens the society to changes and accelerates the process of democratisation,” Rafiee said.

To get around these obstacles, Hafez uses built-in VPN technology, which allows the app to circumvent attempts by the government to block the app.

Rafiee’s organisation is also looking to circumvent government censorship. It recently launched Toosheh, an app that allows people who do not have internet access to receive information using satellite TV technology.

“We are hoping to become more technologically advanced in order to use such tools for the purpose of advancing awareness and human rights conditions in Iran,” Rafiee said.

Mahmoudi reiterated that these apps are just tools created to help achieve a bigger goal. “The most important thing we can do is build a culture of transparency, accountability and civic engagement,” she said.

“How human rights leaders, ethnic and religious minorities and those persecuted are treated is a litmus test for the human rights conditions in a country,” Mahmoudi added.

SOURCE: AL JAZEERA NEWS

 

Iran Recruits Afghans to Defend Assad, their Numbers Are a ‘Military Secret’

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE SAUDI NEWS AGENCY ASHARQ AL-AWSAT)

 

Iran Recruits Afghans to Defend Assad, their Numbers is a ‘Military Secret’

Wednesday, 25 October, 2017 – 08:15
Syrian pro-regime forces hold a position in Aleppo’s Sheikh Saeed district, on December 12, 2016 (AFP PHOTO / GEORGE OURFALIAN)
Kabul – London – Asharq Al-Awsat

Fleeing grinding poverty and unemployment, thousands of Afghan Shi’ites have been recruited by Iran to defend the head of the Syrian regime, Bashar al-Assad.

“For me it was just about money,” Shams, a former fighter, told Agence France Presse.

Hurman Rights Watch says the Iranians refuse to provide accurate figures, but estimates there are nearly 15,000 Afghans fighting for Fatemiyoun.

Shams, a 25-year-old member of the Hazara ethnic group, went to Syria twice in 2016 to fight in a conflict that has now been raging for more than six years.

“I went there (Iran) because I was jobless and it was a way to get money for my family,” said Shams.

“My idea was to find a job in Iran. I had no plan to go to fight in Syria but after a month of being jobless I decided to go.

“They were encouraging us saying ‘you will be a freedom fighter and if you return to Iran alive you can stay with a 10-year residence permit’.”

Afghan Shi’ites are given 1.5 million toman (about $450) to register at a recruitment center for the Fatemiyoun, Shams said. Once they have signed up they receive three million toman a month, a fortune for many poor Afghans.

Shams’ first mission was in June 2016 in the Syrian capital of Damascus, where he was assigned to protect a barracks for two months.

He went back to the country in September and was deployed to Aleppo, where he was given his first AK-47 after receiving rudimentary weapons training from Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.

On the front line of the battle between ISIS militants and Al-Nusra Front group, Shams said he found himself caught up in an intense and deadly battle.

“In Aleppo we faced an ambush — out of 100 fighters we lost almost all of them. There were 15 of us left alive,” Shams said.

“The bodies were sent back to Iran and the families in Afghanistan held funeral ceremonies in mosques without a coffin or grave.”

Ali Alfoneh, a senior fellow at the Washington-based think tank Atlantic Council, estimates more than 760 Afghans have been killed in Syria since September 2013.

The number of Afghans fighting for the Fatemiyoun is a “military secret,” said Ramazan Bashardost, a Hazara member of parliament in Kabul.

“They are used by the Iranian government, which treats them like slaves,” he said.

“The sorrow, pain and hunger of the people is not a major concern of the Afghan government,” he added.

Iran’s Violations of Arms Embargo to Be Discussed by UN Security Council

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE ASHARQ AL-AWSAT NEWS AGENCY)

 

Iran’s Violations of Arms Embargo to Be Discussed by Security Council

United Nations Security Council. Reuters

New York- Few days after former Secretary-general of the United Nations Ban Ki-moon expressed his concern regarding the fact that Tehran might have violated an arms embargo by supplying weapons and missiles to Lebanese Shi’ite group so-called Hezbollah, the topic is set to be discussed by the council on January 18.

The second bi-annual report, due to be discussed by the 15-member council, also cited an accusation by France that an arms shipment seized in the northern Indian Ocean in March was from Iran and likely bound for Somalia or Yemen.

Regardless that the session was aimed at following the implementation of U.N. resolution 2231, which endorsed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, Reuters confirmed on Monday that the report submitted every six months by U.N. chief included U.N. concern from Iran violating an arms embargo.

According to Reuters, the report was submitted to the Security Council on Dec. 30 by Ban Ki-moon before he was succeeded by Antonio Guterres on Jan. 1.

It came just weeks before U.S. President-elect Donald Trump, who has threatened to either scrap the nuclear agreement or seek a better deal, takes office.

“In a televised speech broadcast by Al Manar TV on 24 June 2016, Hassan Nasrallah, the Secretary-General of Hezbollah, stated that the budget of Hezbollah, its salaries, expenses, weapons and missiles all came from the Islamic Republic of Iran,” Ban wrote in the report.

“I am very concerned by this statement, which suggests that transfers of arms and related materiel from the Islamic Republic of Iran to Hezbollah may have been undertaken contrary to a Security Council resolution,” Ban said.

Most U.N. sanctions were lifted a year ago under a deal Iran made with Britain, France, Germany, China, Russia, the United States and the European Union to curb its nuclear program.

However, Iran is still subject to an arms embargo and other restrictions, which are not technically part of the nuclear agreement.

Meanwhile, U.N. Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Iran Asma Jahangir expressed deep concerns over the continuous detention of human rights defenders in the country, who, she said “have been tried on the basis of vaguely defined offences and heavily sentenced following trials marred with due process violations.”

Raising alarm over the health of several prisoners of conscience in Iran, who have been on a prolonged hunger strike contesting the legality of their detention, the U.N. expert on the human rights situation there urged the authorities to “immediately and unconditionally” release all those who have been arbitrarily arrested, detained and prosecuted for exercising their rights.

Two of at least eight protesting prisoners of conscience have been on hunger strike since October last year.

One of the two ended his strike last week after his wife, Golrokh Ebrahimi Iraee, a human rights defender, was granted bail.

Another protester – Mohammed Ali Taheri – started his strike on 28 September.

However, his whereabouts have been unknown since his reported transfer to Baghiatollah Military Hospital in October.

Furthermore, at least one of the protesters – Arash Sadeghi, another human rights defender – is being denied transfer to specialized medical facilities despite his critical health condition and is reportedly kept in his cell.

“I call on the Iranian authorities to ensure that Sadeghi has access, as a matter of utmost priority, to specialized health care in a hospital outside prison, in compliance with international human rights standards and medical ethics in particular the principles of informed consent,” said Jahangir.