The "Iranian authorities' recent arrests of high-profile critics are part of a fresh crackdown on peaceful dissent," Human Rights Watch said in a statement on Tuesday.
Among others, Iranian reformist politician Mostafa Tajzadeh, a staunch critic of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was also arrested last week, a few hours after tweeting against the government's tightening of the Islamic dress code for women.
He was accused of "conspiring against the country's security," according to Iranian news agency Mehr.
As for Rasoulof and Aleahmad, they were among a group of at least 70 Iranian filmmakers and movie industry workers who had published an open letter and posted statements on social media calling on their country's security forces to lay down their weapons.
Using the hashtag #put_your_gun_down, their appeal referred to the authorities' violent crackdown on protesters following the collapse of a building in the southwestern city of Abadan that killed 41 people in May — the deadliest incident of its kind in Iran for years.
For the signatories of the letter, the Abadan disaster embodies the authorities' "corruption, theft, inefficiency and repression."
Following their arrest, Iran's official state news agency stated that the filmmakers were "involved in inciting unrest and disrupting the psychological security of society."
Jafar Panahi was then later arrested while he was attempting to check on the cases of his two filmmaking colleagues at the prosecutor's office in Tehran on Monday evening.
New intelligence chief shows 'state's iron fist'
Observers of Iranian policy point out that the crackdown on political and civil activists follows the appointment of a new intelligence chief at the head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) on June 23.
After 12 years in the post, Hossein Taeb was replaced by General Mohammad Kazemi after different IRGC officers were killed or died under mysterious circumstances.
"The new intelligence chief is clenching the state's iron fist to crush the increasing attempts we've been observing at opposing repressive state policies and holding Iranian officials accountable," said Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the New York-based Center for Human Rights in Iran.
Directors' arrests prompt calls of support in Europe
Rasoulof and Panahi are both winners of the Berlinale film festival's top award, the Golden Bear, and have been the target of Iranian authorities for years.
Shortly after winning a major prize at the Cannes Film Festival with "A Man of Integrity" in 2017 Mohammad Rasoulof, who was then based in Hamburg, returned to his home country. Iranian authorities then confiscated Rasoulof's passport and banned him from directing new films. In July 2019, he was sentenced to a year in prison without knowing when he would be incarcerated. He nevertheless managed to shoot "There Is No Evil," which won the Golden Bear in 2020.
Jafar Panahi won a Cannes award with his 1995 feature debut, "The White Balloon," and kept receiving international acclaim despite increasing restrictions in Iran. Since 2010, he has been banned from making films and leaving the country, but still managed to secretly direct more works, including the Golden Bear-winning "Taxi" (2015) and "3 Faces," which won Cannes' best screenplay prize in 2018.
Their arrests have prompted calls of support from the Berlinale, the European Film Academy and the International Coalition for Filmmakers at Risk, among other organizations.
The arrests violate "freedom of expression and freedom of the arts. We ask the Iranian authorities to release the detained filmmakers immediately," said Berlinale directors Mariette Rissenbeek and Carlo Chatrian in their statement of support.
Women defy hijab rule in social media campaign
Meanwhile, women's rights activists are also defying new repressive measures targeting their rights.
President Ebrahim Raisi, who was elected in June 2021, issued on July 5 an order to enforce the country's "chastity and hijab" law. The directive by the hardline conservative cleric, a protege of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, determines among other things what female government employees are allowed to wear to work.
July 12 marks the National Day of Hijab and Chastity in Iran, and authorities are organizing events in large football stadiums across the country to promote the hijab rule.
Women rights' activists are planning to rebel against the stricter rules amid the rallies.
"Tomorrow Iranian women will shake the clerical regime by removing their hijab and taking to the streets across Iran to say #No2Hijab," tweeted Iranian-American journalist and women's rights activist Masih Alinejad, who now lives in exile in New York City, on Tuesday. Her post includes a video of different women out in public without the hijab.
The Center for Human Rights in Iran listed on Monday the names of 13 members of civil society who were arrested over the past week, adding that they have "serious concerns over more potential violence and detentions on July 12."
Edited by Sarah Hucal.