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Ottawa demands release of Iran’s ‘blogfather’

Ottawa is ratcheting up pressure on the Iranian government to release Hossein Derakhshan, the controversial Iranian-Canadian "blogfather" who was sentenced to 19½ years in prison by a revolutionary court.

"If true, this is completely unacceptable and unjustifiable," Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Lawrence Cannon said in a statement.

"Canada believes that no one should be punished anywhere for simply exercising one's inherent right to freedom of expression," he said, adding Canadian officials are still seeking consular access to Mr. Derakhshan, who is being held in a revolutionary guard jail within Iran's notorious Evin prison complex.

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Mr. Derakhshan, 35, is widely known by his online name "Hoder." He was born in Iran, but moved to Canada and became a Canadian citizen in early adulthood. He is a staunch advocate of free expression in Iran, and became known as the "blogfather" of Iran's online community for training pro-democracy advocates to blog and podcast in the late nineties. Later, he apologized for his dissenting views, and emerged as an unlikely supporter of the regime, at one point comparing Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to a modern-day Che Guevara.

So when the Iranian government invited him to travel to Iran in 2008, he accepted, thinking he would help his country reach out to the world, according to friends and family. Upon his arrival, however, another branch of the government arrested him.

On Tuesday, he was convicted of insulting Islamic thought and religious figures, managing obscene websites and co-operating with "enemy states" because he visited Israel five years ago. He was also ordered to pay the equivalent of approximately $45,000 in fines.

"It's not as bad as a death sentence, but it's an awful and really bad sentence for someone that's only writing," Mr. Derakhshan's former wife, Marjan Alemi told CBC's The Current.

"He went back thinking he could go back to Iran and help," she added.

Ms. Alemi said Mr. Derakhshan has spent most of the two years preceding his trial in solitary confinement.

"He can't exercise. He can't have books. He can see his family for only five or 10 minutes a week," Ms. Alemi said. Neither the family's lawyer, nor any representative from the Canadian government were present at his trial.

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While Mr. Derakhshan's family has the right to appeal the ruling, they are not hopeful.

"He's always very positive, but I don't think anybody can keep strong for 19½ years," his former wife said.

Reporters Without Borders, a Paris-based advocacy group, issued a statement saying that "never has such a tough sentence been handed to a blogger in Iran."

"This case, fabricated from start to finish, shows that part of the regime wants to make Hossein Derakhshan into an example."

The group's statement said Mr. Derakhshan's sentence was due to "internal rivalries and struggles for influence inside the regime. We ask Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to intervene personally to free him as soon as possible."

Some observers have drawn parallels between Mr. Derakhshan's case and that of Maziar Bahari, an Iranian-Canadian journalist who was imprisoned by the Iranian government for 118 days before he was released on bail last October, under pressure from U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

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So far, Mr. Derakhshan's case has failed to ignite similar expressions of sympathy.

Mr. Cannon's statement was the strongest issued yet: "We will continue to press the Iranian authorities on Mr. Derakhshan's behalf and urge Iran to fully respect all of its human rights obligations, both in law and in practice," it read.

Meanwhile, Mr. Bahari, who has returned to London where he is based as a correspondent with Newsweek magazine, is calling for the United Nations to intervene by assigning a human rights monitor to Iran.

"Hossein's case is tragic, puzzling and mind-boggling," Mr. Bahari said, noting Mr. Derakhshan's support for the regime didn't seem to mitigate the harshness of his sentence.

"This is a regime that's treating its friends like that," he said, "so you can imagine how it is treating its enemies."

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About the Author

Sonia Verma writes about foreign affairs for The Globe and Mail. Based in Toronto, she has recently covered economic change in Latin America, revolution in Egypt, and elections in Haiti. Before joining The Globe in 2009, she was based in the Middle East, reporting from across the region for The Times of London and New York Newsday. More

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