Journalist is jailed for 14 years after 'insulting' authority

A prominent Iranian journalist and blogger has been sentenced to 14 years in prison on charges ranging from spying to aiding counter-revolutionaries. His sentence comes as part of the latest clerical crackdown on freedom of speech.

Arash Sigarchi, a regional newspaper editor, was accused of inciting a riot through his writings and insulting the authorities. His lawyer, Mohammad Saifzadeh, questioned the authority of the court and said he would appeal.

The trial was held behind closed doors in the absence of his lawyer; it is not known whether Mr Sigarchi was even present. A Nobel laureate, Shirin Ebadi, who has also faced questioning from the "revolutionary court" - is expected to represent him at the appeal.

Widney Brown, a spokesman for Human Rights Watch, said the sentence marked a new low for freedom of expression in Iran. "The Iranian government is sending a message to its critics: keep silent or face years in prison," he said.

Mr Sigarchi, is editor of the daily Gylan Emroz newspaper in the Caspian Sea city of the same name, and, for the past three years, ran a political and cultural webblog, found at www.sigarchi.com/blog on which he sometimes criticised the regime. Iranian authorities have blocked access to the site.

According to the pressure group, Reporters Without Borders, Mr Sigarchi had previously been arrested last August for posting an article online with photos of a demonstration in Tehran by families of prisoners executed in 1989. Since then, he has suffered constant police harassment.

The last message on his blog was in relation to the Indian Ocean tsunami, in which he expressed his solidarity with the victims and said that the Iranian people could not be unmoved by the tragedy.

The Worldwide Press Freedom organisation voiced outrage at the arrest and called on Iran's President, Mohammad Khatami, to intervene immediately.

Mr Sigarchi is said by authorities to be a paid employee of Farda radio, a US-funded station based in Prague. Hardliners in Iran accuse the network of seeking to incite public unrest and destabilise the ruling Islamic establishment.

Mr Sigarchi's arrest follows a crackdown by Iranian authorities on the growing popularity of weblogs, restricting access to major blogging sites from within Iran.

Last year, more than 20 young internet journalists and bloggers were arrested and held for several weeks where they were kept in solitary confinement and subjected to psychological and physical torture.

A second Iranian blogger, Motjaba Saminezhad, who also used his website to report on bloggers' arrests, is still being held after being arrested, released, then arrested again.

Earlier this month, Mojtaba Lotfi, a cleric in the city of Qom who wrote social and political commentary on his blog, was sentenced to nearly four years in jail by the Special Court for the Clergy.

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