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Explained: Who was Ruhollah Zam and why was he executed by Iran?

Ruhollah Zam’s execution comes four days after the Iranian Supreme Court upheld his death sentence, despite facing widespread condemnation.

Written by Rahel Philipose , Edited by Explained Desk | Vasco | Updated: December 18, 2020 2:52:06 pm
Explained: Why Iran executed journalist Ruhollah Zam?Ruhollah Zam, a dissident journalist who was captured in what Tehran calls an intelligence operation, speaks during his trial in Tehran, Iran June 2, 2020. Picture taken June 2, 2020. (Mizan News Agency/West Asia News Agency)

Iranian dissident and journalist Ruhollah Zam was executed early on Saturday morning for his role in sparking nationwide anti-government protests in 2017, Iran’s state television reported. Zam’s execution comes four days after the Iranian Supreme Court upheld his death sentence, despite facing widespread condemnation.

Earlier this year, a court sentenced Zam to death after he was found guilty of “corruption on earth” — a charge that is often invoked for cases that involve espionage or an attempt to overthrow the Iranian government.

Who is Ruhollah Zam?

Ruhollah Zam was an Iranian activist and journalist who was best known for running an online opposition news website, called AmadNews, as well as a thriving channel on messaging app Telegram, where he had garnered over a million followers.

He is the son of a reformist Shiite cleric, named Mohammad Ali Zam, who used to serve in a government policy position in the 1980s, according to AP. In a letter published by local media in July 2017, his father said he did not support his son’s journalism and the messaging he was sending through Telegram.

What was Zam’s role in the anti-government protests of 2017?

Zam’s website and Telegram feed played a central role in the anti-government protests that broke out across Iran in 2017 in response to a flailing economy, soaring inflation and an overall lack of opportunity for thousands of the country’s citizens. Around 5,000 people were detained and as many as 25 killed in the demonstrations that year.

The 2017 protests grew to become the biggest political challenge faced by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and even Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei since the pro-democracy Green Movement protests that spread through the country in 2009. 📣 Follow Express Explained on Telegram

Information about the timings and locations of the protests as well as inflammatory content about Iran’s leadership was constantly shared on Zam’s Telegram news feed. At one point, Telegram even shut down his channel after the Iranian government complained that the journalist was teaching his followers how to make petrol bombs — an allegation that Zam denied.

However, a little while later the channel was launched yet again under a new name. But Zam already had a target on his back for challenging Iran’s Shia theocracy.

In October 2019, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps announced that they had arrested Zam. But the details of his arrest are unclear, as he had been granted political asylum in France, and was living there ever since he was imprisoned in Iran following a disputed presidential election in 2009.

Why was Ruhollah Zam executed?

Months after he was arrested under mysterious circumstances, Zam was found guilty of “corruption on Earth” and sentenced to death in July, this year. Earlier this week, the country’s Supreme Court upheld the death sentence.

Zam had been accused of destroying property, interfering with Iran’s economic system, conspiring with the US and spying on behalf of French intelligence, Al Jazeera reported. Authorities alleged that the journalist was in close contact with agents from the US’ National Security Agency (NSA) and a number of other foreign intelligence services.

“This individual committed criminal and corrupt acts against the security and livelihoods of the Iranian people through running the antagonist AmadNews Telegram channel and espionage communication with elements linked with foreign services that are against the Iranian people’s security,” an article in Mizan, the official news website of Iran’s judiciary, read.

The crime of “spreading corruption on Earth” or “Mofsed fel-Arz” is a vague charge often wielded by the Islamic state against those who oppose it. Under the Iranian penal code, the punishment for crimes involving violating national security or spreading lies is a maximum of 10 years in prison. But according to Article 286 of the country’s penal code, a person who spreads lies or violates national security at a “large scale” may face execution.

However, no criterion is set out to define what would qualify as a crime committed on a “large scale”.

What has the response been to Zam’s execution?

Several activists and advocacy groups across the world have condemned Zam’s execution. According to Reporters Without Borders, Iran has been “one of the world’s most repressive countries for journalists for the past 40 years.” At least 860 journalists have been arrested or executed in the country since 1979.

“RSF is outraged at this new crime of Iranian justice,” the organisation tweeted, blaming the country’s supreme leader Khamenei for Zam’s execution.

According to a Reuters report, the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold the death sentence was condemned by France and several human rights groups.

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