Iranian-Canadian blogger's family pleads for help

The brother of Iranian-Canadian "Blogfather" Hossein Derakhshan, who has been imprisoned in Iran without trial for nearly a year, is warning foreign-born Canadians not to rely on their Canadian passports.

Toronto's Hossein Derakhshan has been imprisoned in Tehran since 2008

Iranian-Canadian blogger Hossein Derakhshan has been imprisoned in Iran without trial for nearly a year. ((CBC))

The brother of the Iranian-Canadian "Blogfather," who has been imprisoned in Iran without trial for nearly a year, is warning foreign-born Canadians not to rely on their Canadian passports.

"People should think twice if they expect anything from the Canadian government because they are carrying a Canadian passport," Hamed Derakhshan, the younger brother of Hossein Derakhshan or "Hoder," told CBC News as the first anniversary of his brother's imprisonment approached.

Hamed Derakhshan, speaking out for the first time, claims that Canada's Foreign Affairs Department has said nothing publicly on his brother's arrest and has done little to get fair treatment for the ex-blogger, who has been imprisoned in Tehran since Nov. 2, 2008.

That was shortly after he moved back to his home country, thinking his Canadian passport would offer some protection.

The response the family has had from Foreign Affairs is that Iran doesn't recognize dual citizenship.

Indeed, when CBC News contacted the Iranian Embassy in Ottawa, a spokesman said: "As far as I know, there is no Canadian citizen in prison in Iran."

"That is just an excuse to do nothing," said Hamed Derakhshan, who is two years younger than his 34-year-old brother. "Silence against the treatment of its citizens means they approve" of the way Iran is handling the case.

In an email to CBC News on Thursday night, Canada's Department of Foreign Affairs would only say that consular officials are in contact with Iranian authorities and are attempting to gain access to Derakhshan. Citing the Privacy Act, the department said it could release no further information, although it did stress that Iran does not recognize dual nationalities.

At the end of 2008, Iran confirmed the blogger had been arrested and was facing charges for "insulting religious figures." 

Enabled blogging in Persian

"Hoder" became famous in 2001 for creating a step-by-step guide to blogging with Persian characters, leading to an explosion of blogging in the country of 69 million people where personal expression is closely monitored by the Islamist government headed by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Hamed Derakhshan claims Canada's Foreign Affairs Department has said nothing publicly about his brother's arrest and has done little to get fair treatment for the ex-blogger. ((CBC))

At the time, Hossein Derakhshan had just moved to Toronto with his Canadian wife after the Iranian government closed Asr-e Azadegan, the reformist newspaper where he was a daily tech columnist.

The blog he created was followed by 20,000 readers and at the height of his popularity, he had 35,000 page views a day. Then the Iranian government figured out a way to deny access to his fans, cutting his readership in half in 2004.

The government's crackdown led to the imprisonment of other bloggers whose work Derakhshan had helped spawn, and he set out to tour U.S. campuses and talk shows to raise awareness of their plight.

He also travelled twice to Israel on speaking tours, which his brother called attempts to forge relations between the Israeli and Iranian people.

Hossein Derakhshan returned to Iran last October, knowing he could be arrested for making those trips to Israel on his Canadian passport. The usual punishment for an Iranian visiting Israel is one month in prison, which can usually be avoided by offering a cash payment.

Two weeks after his return, Iranian police came to his parents' door. In a polite manner, according to Hossein's mother, they interviewed her son and then took him away, along with his notebooks and computer.

She was told not to publicize his detention, and the parents have only seen him twice over the last year.

"He knew he would be arrested, knew he would face a trial," said Hamed. "Not be in prison for one year without a trial, without a lawyer, without charges."

Though his blog postings had been critical of the Iranian regime in the past, more recent posts filed before his arrest had been favourable toward Ahmadinejad. 

Asking for the world's help

Now that Hossein Derakhshan is nearing his first anniversary in jail, his brother said the family decided it was time to appeal to the world community for help.

At first the blogger's father, Hassan, owner of a carpet business, thought he could use his connections to try to seek his son's freedom.

The father's older brother had been a colleague of Iran's ruling elite who died in an explosion during that group's ascent to power. In fact, Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, presided at the blogger's first marriage.

"My father believed it was better to use the connections, prove that he is loyal to them, work within the system," said Hamed Derakhshan.

But his father's five-day-a-week visits to authorities have been ignored.

Recently, the family got a phone call from Hossein Derakhshan in prison. "He probably doesn't know what a terrible situation my parents are in. He broke my parents' heart when he said on one phone call: 'Have you forgotten about me? Are you doing anything for me?'"

Solitary confinement for a time

Hossein Derakhshan has been held in solitary confinement for most of his imprisonment. During his parents' last visit, he said he planned to go on a hunger strike.

He was then put among the general prison population and offered more contact through phone calls. He asked that his plight be publicized since silence has allowed his captors to act with impunity.

He also told his parents he was forced, under duress, to falsely confess to having connections with the CIA and the Israeli government.

Hamed Derakhshan said rumours have surfaced that his brother was not arrested and was working with the Iranian government, but he said those beliefs have been perpetuated by bloggers irritated with his shifting political allegiances.

"I've tried to appeal to them," Hamed Derakhshan told CBC News, speaking from an undisclosed location in Asia.

He tells the bloggers: "It's true you might have had your differences. I'm not in a position to defend him… What's important is that he is a human and he is not being treated fairly.

"Get him out, and then talk about your differences."

He now has the support of Ramin Jahanbegloo, a professor of political science at the University of Toronto who is also an Iranian dissident intellectual and board member of PEN Canada. Jahanbegloo was among those who felt criticized by Derakhshan's blog.

"Although one can disagree with his sentiments about the regime and Ahmadinejad, one should support him and do what's right and struggle for his liberation," he told CBC News on Thursday.

Didn't take easy road

For a brother who looked out for him as a kid, and with whom he spent countless hours playing video games on primitive computers, Hamed Derakhshan says his brother never made easy choices despite his superior intelligence.

"As the oldest son, he could have been running my father's business, but he chose to combine his computer knowledge with his interest in politics," he said.

"When he was 18, he said, 'I am going to be president some day.' That's not possible right now."