Amnesty International is launching a campaign on behalf of a whole new category of prisoners of conscience - internet bloggers and chatroom visitors arrested by repressive governments for expressing unwelcome views or disseminating sensitive information online.
In an appeal issued today, the human rights watchdog is urging webmasters around the world to stand up for their imprisoned fellow bloggers - in countries such as Iran, Tunisia, Vietnam and China - and denouncing major internet service providers, including Yahoo! and Microsoft, for providing foreign governments with the information they need to purge the web of dissenting voices.
The appeal comes on the eve of the inaugural meeting of the Internet Governance Forum, a UN-sponsored gathering in Athens to consider the future of online communication - including freedom of expression as well as security and intellectual property rights.
"People have been locked up just for expressing their views in an e-mail or on a website," said Steve Ballinger of Amnesty. "Sites and blogs have been shut down and firewalls built to prevent access to information. Companies have restricted internet searches to stop people accessing information that repressive governments don't want them to see.
"Countries and businesses have failed to respect, protect and promote the rights to freedom of expression, association and privacy, and the rights of human rights defenders."
Amnesty is issuing an urgent appeal on behalf of an Iranian blogger called Kianoosh Sanjari, who was arrested earlier this month after he provided reports on clashes between security forces and supporters of a Shia cleric called Ayatollah Boroujerdi. "He is being held incommunicado and [we fear] that he may be at risk of torture or ill-treatment," Amnesty said.
A number of governments have resorted to filtering and blocking mechanisms to keep unwelcome political content off the internet, Amnesty said. But the group also criticised big private Internet Service Providers (ISPs) for acceding to the demands of repressive governments and passing on information identifying bloggers.
It pinpointed Yahoo!'s Chinese partner Alibaba, which it said had provided information used to prosecute the journalist Shi Tao and led to Shi's sentencing to 10 years in prison for "illegally providing state secrets to foreign entities". Shi had sent information to a US website about the Chinese government's plans for containing media coverage of an anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.
Amnesty criticised Microsoft for acceding to China's request to restrict freedom of expression on its MSN Spaces blog service, including the shutdown of a blog written by a New York Times researcher, Zhao Jing. Amnesty also joined the criticism that greeted Google's decision to launch a censored version of its search engine for China.
Mr Ballinger said it was vital for the online community to make its voice heard at the Internet Governance Forum. "Freedom of expression online is a right, not a privilege - but it's a right that needs defending," he said. "We're asking bloggers worldwide to show their solidarity with web users in countries where they can face jail just for criticising the government."
Today's appeal comes after publication of an Amnesty report on internet censorship in Vietnam, where the group said ISPs have to inform on their users, internet café owners must monitor the activities of customers and web users themselves must denounce sites they encounter which criticise the government.
The Vietnamese government reserves the right to block sites, ostensibly to prevent the spread of pornography.
Kianoosh Sanjari's blog
Ahmad Batebi's doctor is arrested
[Student activist Ahmad Batebi was briefly released from prison for medical treatment]
A few minutes ago I had a phonecall saying that Dr Hesam Firouzi [Ahmed Batabi's doctor] was arrested at his house. His wife told a friend of his at noon that five or six plainclothes people from the Ministry of Information came to the house. After searching the house and collecting Dr Firouzi's belongings like computers, letters and writings, they arrested him and took him. Dr Firouzi's wife managed to see the arrest warrant. It says "Hesan 209". 209 is a section of Evin prison known as the Security Detention Centre.
Saturday 7 October
[reportedly the day of Kianoosh Sanjari's arrest]
Last week I wrote a piece about a writer and producer of Islamic Republic TV News programmes. He phoned me from cell 350 at Evin prison. He said he had different responsibilities in the government, above all he was writer and producer of the news programme "Import and Distribution of contaminated meat". [this is a big issue in Iran] Apparently he used to work with Hossein Shariatmadari, the editor of the Keyhan newspaper, at Tehran Keyhan.
Tonight he phoned again and informed me that last Wednesday morning, he was transferred from Cell 350 at Evin prison to a detention centre in Islamshaht, where he was originally arrested. He said on Thursday, he was taken to No. 1 revolutionary court, where he was accused of spying for foreigners. He rejected this accusation. After the court hearing was finished, he was taken back to Evin prison.