Iran’s Zarif derided as ‘Pinocchio’ after freedom of speech claim

The country's foreign minister said Tehran does 'not jail people for their opinions' when asked about the decision to put on trial a Washington Post reporter.

Iran's foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif attends a public event at New York University's  Kimmel Centre on April 29, 2015. Kean Betancur/AFP Photo
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NEW YORK // Iranian activists dismissed the country’s foreign minister as a political “Pinocchio” after he said in a US television interview that the Islamic Republic does not imprison journalists or dissidents over their views.

"We don't jail people for their opinions," Mohammad Javad Zarif said on the Charlie Rose show on PBS on Wednesday when asked about the decision to put on trial a Washington Post reporter based in Tehran.

“But people who commit crimes, who violate the laws of a country, cannot hide behind being a journalist or being a political activist.”

The Post reporter, American citizen Jason Rezaian, has been in detention for more than nine months. The paper reported on April 20 that Rezaian was being charged with espionage and called for him to be freed. The US president Barack Obama described his custody as unjust.

Iranians who have spent time in prison for expressing opinions critical of the clerical regime took to Twitter and Facebook to mock Mr Zarif. Images of the minister with an elongated wooden nose quickly appeared, a reference to the fictional children’s character whose nose grew every time he lied.

"Mr @JZarif is, unfortunately, lying," said Maziar Bahari, an Iranian journalist and filmmaker who was jailed for 118 days in 2009 after he participated in an interview on the satirical news programme The Daily Show following a disputed presidential election. "Many innocent people are in prison in Iran just for being a journalist or an activist."

Bahari's imprisonment became the subject of the movie Rosewater, directed by Jon Stewart, the host of The Daily Show. He now lives in the UK.

Two years into a term that has focused on removing economic sanctions through a nuclear deal with the world powers, Iranian president Hassan Rouhani has failed to deliver on his promise to improve human rights and release political prisoners.

Iran remains one of the world’s five biggest jailers of journalists, according to Reporters Without Borders. It said this month that 46 journalists and internet activists were in prison after “unfair trials and held in inhuman and degrading conditions”.

Former presidential candidates Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karubi, who led the protest movement that challenged the results of the 2009 election, remain under house arrest, their release hindered by a judiciary dominated by hardline opponents of Mr Rouhani.

In a report last year, the UN’s special rapporteur on human rights in Iran, Ahmed Shaheed, cited concerns that draft laws would further undermine freedom of expression and association, and further discriminate against women. He acknowledged though a greater government willingness to discuss a range of alleged abuses.

Mr Zarif’s interview has reignited the debate.

“Mr Zarif, for my writings and interviews as a journalist for lawful newspapers, I was sentenced to 7 years and 4 months and 32 lashes,” Bahman Ahmadi Amouee wrote on his Facebook account. Amouee is an Iranian journalist who finished his sentence last year after being convicted on security charges. “Rouhani and his foreign minister tell lies,” he said.

* Bloomberg