Several employees of an Iranian tech news site, including bloggers, have been sentenced to long prison terms for alleged links to the BBC.
In a blow to President Hassan Rouhani’s administration, which is trying to improve relations with the West, including Britain, Iranian justice has imposed various sentences of up to 11 years on Narenji staff.
Iranian authorities said this year that some of the employees had participated in projects run by the BBC and its training courses, and had received funds from London. The Guardian understands that at least one of the inmates was interns in an award-winning journalism development program run by the BBC World Service Trust from 2006 to 2010 called ZigZag.
In December, at least 16 Iranian nationals were arrested by members of elite Revolutionary Guard forces in the southern province of Kerman for working or having links with Narenji and his associated company, Govashir. Narenji founder Aliasghar Honarmand has been jailed for 11 years, the Guardian has learned.
Of those arrested last year, at least 11 have been convicted – three remain in prison, including Honarmand, Hossein Nozari, who was sentenced to seven years and Ehsan Paknejad, who was sentenced to five years. Others were reportedly released on bail and given suspended prison terms ranging from three months to two and a half years.
“The group was made up of 11 people who designed websites and provided content to anti-state and anti-Iranian media,” Kerman local justice Yadollah Movahed told reporters, according to the Fars news agency. “The group had direct contact with satellite channels such as BBC Persian.” Narenji staff can appeal convictions.
Movahed also said that two people, in cases separate from Narenji’s, have been convicted of collaborating with the British secret service, MI6, and the Zionist regime (a reference to Israel). One was sentenced to 10 years and the other five, but he did not identify them.
Iranian authorities have deep mistrust of the BBC, suspecting it of being a British spy tool, and have accused dozens of people in recent years of collaborating with the company, especially its Persian service. Earlier this month, prominent documentary filmmaker Mahnaz Mohammadi was jailed for five years for alleged links to the BBC, which she has vehemently denied. BBC Persian has repeatedly stated that it has no employees in Iran.
There is also an internal struggle between Rouhani’s government and hard-line supporters for internet freedom. The Iranian president pleaded for greater access to the web but was prevented from doing so by the judiciary and the Revolutionary Guards.
The recent conviction over links to the BBC also coincided with British Foreign Secretary William Hague’s announcement earlier this week that London was opening its embassy in Tehran, a few years after angry crowds grabbed it from ‘assault.
In May, it emerged that eight people, including a Briton of Iranian descent, had been jailed for their Facebook activities. Roya Saberinejad, 47, from Stockport, was sentenced to 20 years.