An Iranian actress known for her political activism in support of the country's reformists has been sentenced to 18 months in prison after facing security charges, newspapers reported Tuesday, in another sign of the underlying tensions between Iran's hard-line judiciary and calls for greater openness by new President Hassan Rouhani.
The reports came a day after authorities ordered the closure of the pro-reform Bahar daily for publishing a commentary considered offensive to Islam by raising questions about the successors of the Prophet Muhammad.
But Iranian officials have shown signs of easing some clampdowns since the moderate-leaning Rouhani took office in August — such as freeing dozens of prisoners held on political charges and reopening a prominent artistic centre known as the House of Cinema.
The case over the 24-year-old actress, Pegah Ahangarani, also points to the internal — and sometimes conflicting — centers of power in Iran.
The judiciary is controlled by the country's ruling clerics, headed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has given the green light so far to some of Rouhani's main international initiatives, such as outreach to Washington despite opposition from some hard-line groups. But Khamenei and his inner circle appear cautious on fast-paced domestic reforms that could further anger Rouhani's opponents.
Ahangarani, who has appeared in about 20 films, has been detained twice since the protests in 2009 over the disputed re-election of then President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, but she was released without charges. Recently, she has been banned from travelling abroad.
The Chicago Film Festival is currently showing Ahangarani's latest film, Darband, about a female university student who becomes the roommate of a young woman wrestling with financial problems.
Charges include "links to foreign media"
Tuesday's report by the pro-reform Shargh daily quoted Ahangarani's mother, Manijeh Hekmat, as saying the actress has been sentenced to 18 months. She said it is unclear who filed the complaint against Ahangarani, but noted the charges including "action against national security and links to foreign media." Ahangarani can appeal the ruling.
In reaction to the verdict, many movie-lovers quickly joined a cyber-campaign urging authorities to reconsider.
Shortly after Rouhani's election victory, Ahangarani asked him at a public meeting to appoint a culture minister who would be able to deliver promises on "freedom of thought and expression." She also said "incompetent" officials were the country's "biggest enemy."
In 2011, an Iranian court sentenced filmmaker Jafar Panahi to a six-year house arrest and a 20-year ban on filmmaking after he was convicted of "making propaganda" against Iran's ruling system. Panahi, however, has been seen at recent cultural events in Tehran.
Rouhani's administration in September reopened the House of Cinema, an independent film group that was ordered closed in early 2012.