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Freedom of SpeechIran

Iran jails regime critic Sadegh Zibakalam

May 13, 2024

Iranian academic and government critic Sadegh Zibakalam has been jailed on "propaganda" charges. In 2018, Zibakalam received DW's Freedom of Speech Award for his daring criticism of Iran's leadership.

Zibakalam gestures with his left hand towards the camera during an interview in 2017
Sadegh Zibakalam has recently published a book titled, 'Why Don't They Take You?'Image: Photoshot/picture alliance

Sadegh Zibakalam, a distinguished former political science professor and prominent critic of the Iranian regime, has been detained and sentenced to jail, according to Iranian media reports.

The charges against Zibakalam were related to spreading "propaganda" against the Islamic Republic, as reported by the Iranian judiciary's news website Mizan.

The report said Zibakalam will serve at least 18 months. He is to be sent to Tehran's notorious Evin prison, where numerous political prisoners, including human rights activist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Narges Mohammadi, are incarcerated.

Mohammadi and other Evin inmates have reported accounts of torture and other human rights abuses taking place inside the prison.

Former Evin prisoner raises alarm over plight of detainees

Who is Sadegh Zibakalam?

Although Zibakalam frequently ran afoul of Iran's regime, this is the first time he has been jailed.

The 75-year-old had recently published a book titled, "Why Don't They Take You?".

"I wrote this book because I am constantly asked why I am not arrested," Zibakalam told Iran's online news portal Khabar in an interview published over the weekend.

"Maybe it is not worth arresting me," he added.

Before the news of his arrest broke on Sunday, Zibakalam was expected to attend the book's launch at a Tehran book fair.

What do we know about the case against Zibakalam?

According to the news television channel Iran International, Zibakalam's arrest is related to comments he made about the Kerman bombing in January, which killed 89 people and was claimed by the so-called ISIS-K terror group.

The blast targeted mourners at the grave site of slain Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps General Qassem Soleimani.

In an interview with the international radio broadcaster Voice of America in Farsi, Zibakalam disagreed with the Iranian government's claims that Israel was involved in the bombing.

Sadegh Zibakalam stands at a podium, holding his DW Freedom of Speech Award
Zibakalam received DW's Freedom of Speech Award in 2018Image: DW/U. Wagner

The academic has been a vocal critic of Iran's Islamic system for many years. He is known for holding intense debates with government officials, and criticizing their stance on domestic and foreign policy matters.

In the wake of the mass protest movement against the Iranian regime that was sparked by the death of Jina Mahsa Amini in September 2022, Zibakalam stepped up his criticism of the Iranian regime on social media.

At the same time, Zibakalam's critics have accused him of having connections with Iran's ruling elite. In 2019, photos were published online showing Zibakalam meeting with religious and political leaders of the Islamic Republic.

Previously, he said he accepted "all invitations," even from people he disagreed with.

"I have something to say, and I firmly believe that we need dialogue," he said in a 2016 video recorded in his office.

DW Freedom of Speech Award laureate

Zibakalam is one of the few remaining critics of Iran's political system still based in the country.

In 2018, Zibakalam received DW's Freedom of Speech Award.

At the time, he was facing a jail sentence over an earlier interview he had given to DW. His comments focused on Iranians protesting over the deteriorating economic situation. Zibakalam had said the protests were organized by ordinary Iranians and not by "foreign powers," as the government was claiming.

He managed to avoid jail time in that instance, though the circumstances remain unclear.

Zibakalam dedicated his DW award to political prisoners in Iran.

Brutal cost of protest in Iran

Written using material from DPA news agency

Edited by: Darko Janjevic


Wesley Rahn Editor and reporter focusing on geopolitics and Asia