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ABC News
ABC News
By Rachael Brown and Mahmood Fazal

Activists say Iran regime targeting families of Australian protesters

Massoud Modabber was half asleep in the back of a car driving from his home in Melbourne to Canberra when his phone rang.

It was his sister.

"She doesn't cry at all in her life, but her voice was shaking. And the moment I heard her voice, I knew what [had] happened," he said.

Massoud realised his worst fears had come true: "They arrested her, abducted her," his distressed sister said.

Officers had taken their mother from her clinic in Iran where she works as a psychologist, Massoud's sister said.

"She said they have confiscated all the cameras so no-one can see who has done this, because they come as plain clothes officers …," he recalled.

"That's not an arrest, that's an abduction … arrest is a legal process, not with four plain clothes officers, and then just gathering the cameras and everything."

The family didn't know who had taken her, nor where she'd been taken, but Massoud had a suspicion why: "It might have something to do with my activities here."

Massoud has been lending support for the uprising in Iran by attending anti-government protests in Australia.

And he was already on the radar of Iranian authorities, having been a student activist before he moved to Australia in 2014.

In November, he told Background Briefing that informants were attending Australian protests and reporting back to the regime. Protesters' relatives in Iran were then questioned or targeted by officials.

When his sister called him after their mother's arrest, Massoud was on his way to join a protest outside the Iranian embassy in Canberra, but the news didn't deter him.

He recalled how his mother had supported him throughout his activism, which had previously landed him in Evin Prison, the same place to where she had now been taken.

"When I was released after my arrests, every time she supported me, she said she was proud of me. Although she was fully aware that it is dangerous, very dangerous, in Iran to be an activist, she never stopped me."

Massoud's mother ended up spending 28 days in prison before she was released on bail.

She'll face court in a month. Officials allege she was '"acting against internal and foreign security".

Massoud says the only activism his mother might have been involved with is some Instagram posting, "like all Iranians probably do".

He has a wish list for the federal government, three measures to support the Iranian uprising:

"Recalling the ambassador from Iran and expelling the ambassador from here.

"Declaring IRGC [the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps] a terrorist organisation is very important.

"And sanctions going after the [IRGC's] family members and their belongings and their money here."

Massoud says the IRGC is like a mafia organisation: "You [have to] sanction the whole thing, or it doesn't have any impact."

Earlier this week, Australia stepped up its response to the recent violence in Iran, announcing sanctions against a further 16 military and government officials in Iran, bringing Australia's tally to 29.

That same afternoon, the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee tabled its own report into human rights abuses in Iran.

It said the Australian government had been slow to act and called for expanded sanctions, a stronger diplomatic response and the listing of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organisation.

Six days later

When Background Briefing spoke with Iranian Australians in November, Sahar Gholizadeh was the only person willing to share their full name.

"I'm standing with the brave women and men of Iran," she said.

"They are fighting for their own liberties with their bare hands. They don't have anything. I'm going to stand with them with my real name."

Six days later, she was the target of a cyber abuse campaign.

"I was getting like hundreds and hundreds [of notifications]. I couldn't even count. It was like watching a video game."

She soon found out she'd been mentioned in federal parliament by Senator Claire Chandler.

"The ABC reported last weekend that the family of an Iranian Australian nurse living in Melbourne had been threatened by Iranian authorities, including three men visiting her father in Iran and telling him they would burn down his property if she didn't stop sharing information about human rights abusers in Iran online," Senator Chandler told the Senate.

The very next minute, Sahar's phone blew up.

"In a matter of seconds … I didn't know how these bots or cyber attacks were happening. It was scary."

The posts on Facebook, Instagram and Telegram usually fall into two themes: The first kind allege she's working for the Iranian government and people should avoid protests she's involved with. Others contain sexual slurs designed to denigrate her.

Cyber expert Robert Potter says such intimidation campaigns are "very often gendered".

Sahar says the attacks have been coming from inside Australia, and says some have come from the personal accounts of people she's seen at protests.

Mr Potter says it's unclear "whether [such attacks] are state-sponsored or simply state-inspired" and that cyber bullies "working without direction but setting up their own franchise of aggression is something we've seen within these communities".

While Australia's security community has experience with Chinese and Russian cyber campaigns, Potter says Iran's online response to the protest movement is something experts will need another year to dissect.

"It's an under-served section of an under-served problem, which is that activists are going it alone against countries and their cyber apparatuses, their intelligence apparatuses."

Sahar has reported the abuse to the federal and Victorian police forces, but Potter says their resources are strained.

"The vast majority of crimes that affect everyday Australians are becoming cyber-related crimes in some form or another."

Mr Potter compares this radical shift in policing to the introduction of the fingerprint.

"A whole new generation of police officers needs to be trained."

While the disinformation campaign continues in Melbourne, Sahar's parents in Iran have been visited by government representatives and her sister is regularly questioned at her workplace by the Morality Police.

Soon after Massoud and Sahar first spoke to Background Briefing in November, DFAT announced it would investigate reports of protesters in Australia being harassed, and their families in Iran being targeted.

For a time, the intimidation became too much for Sahar, and she withdrew from public events. But the online harassment continued anyway. So, she says, she's done staying silent.

"I think that it's time to unite and organise even better and bigger protests or whatever we can do to raise the voice … to put IRGC on the terrorist list, and get rid of the Islamic government."

A confession under torture

When Background Briefing spoke with north Sydney man Mohammad Hashemi in January, his cousin Majid Kazemi had just been sentenced to death and moved to solitary confinement in Iran after three militiamen died at a protest he attended in Isfahan.

The Iranian authorities' key piece of evidence was a confession. However, Majid told his family that this confession was extracted under torture.

Majid has since appeared on Iranian television where a video showed him retracting his claim that his confession was coerced, and saying he lied about being tortured.

However, Mohammad says that Majid — like other activists — is being forced by the Islamic regime to recant his claim.

Majid has been in solitary confinement for three weeks now, and his family are waiting to hear whether he will be granted an appeal.

For Majid's Sydney cousin Mohammad, at 2pm his day ticks over to its most agonising hour. It's 6:30am in Tehran, when the city awakes and, on some mornings, the executions begin.

"I'm always stressed at that time, always checking my phone — 'OK, have they done anything today or not?'"

Mohammad met advisers to Foreign Minister Penny Wong in January to plead for assistance.

However, Minister Wong told Background Briefing that singling out Majid's case would be too risky.

"As foreign minister, the advice to me is that to name a particular individual may put them at more risk and may put their family and friends at more risk.

"However, that has not prevented me nor the Australian government more broadly from putting our view very clearly to the Iranian government.

"I, the government, the Australian people regard these executions as reprehensible and they are immoral and part of the continued campaign of the Iranian regime against its own people, a campaign which is repressive, and which violates human rights."

A protest march is being planned for Monday, starting outside Canberra's Iranian embassy then moving on to Parliament House.

The Iranian embassy declined to comment on Majid's situation, the cyber attacks on protesters nor the questioning of their family members in Iran.

Australia's attorney-general's office said it was considering the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee’s recommendation to proscribe the IRGC as a terrorist organisation.

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