Iranian journalist Ruhollah Zam, accused of inspiring mass anti-government protests in 2017, has been sentenced to death.
“The court has considered 13 counts of charges together as instances of ‘corruption on earth’ and therefore passed the death sentence,” judiciary spokesman Gholamhossein Esmaili said on Tuesday.
“Corruption on Earth” is a charge often used in cases allegedly involving espionage or attempts to overthrow Iran’s government. It was not immediately clear when the sentence was handed down.
The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) announced the arrest of Zam in October last year. The elite IRGC described Zam, a former opposition figure who had lived in exile in France, as a “counter-revolutionary” who was “directed by France’s intelligence service”.
The details of his arrest, however, remain unclear. Though he was based in Paris, Zam somehow returned to Iran, where he was detained by intelligence officials. A series of televised confessions have aired in recent months over his work.
Speaking from Tehran, Al Jazeera’s Assed Baig said: “There are reports that he [Zam] was lured to Iraq then handed over to Iran.”
Zam was also sentenced to time served over other charges, Esmaili added, without elaborating.
The sentence can be appealed before the supreme court, he said, quoted by the judiciary’s official website.
Zam ran a channel on the Telegram messaging application called AmadNews.
At the time, he was accused by authorities of playing an active role in anti-government protests sparked by economic hardships during the winter of 2017-2018.
The initial spark for the 2017 protests was a sudden jump in food prices. Many believe that hardline opponents of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani instigated the first demonstrations in the eastern city of Mashhad, trying to direct public anger at the president. But as protests spread from town to town, the backlash turned against the entire ruling class.
Soon, cries directly challenging Rouhani and even Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei could be heard in online videos shared by Zam, whose channel also shared times and organisational details for the protests as well.
Telegram, the secure messaging app that remains widely popular among Iranians, shut down AmadNews after Iran demanded it remove the account for inciting an “armed uprising”.
According to Al Jazeera’s Baig, Zam was accused of instigating protests and teaching people how to make Molotov cocktails through his Telegram channel. He was also accused of insulting Khamenei, a grave issue in Iran.
“His Telegram channel routinely carried stories and exclusives about alleged corruption,” said Baig.
Zam, who has said that he fled Iran after being falsely accused of working with foreign intelligence services, denied inciting violence on Telegram at the time.
The 2017 protests reportedly saw some 5,000 people detained and 25 killed.
According to Zam’s indictment, published in February, he was accused of having “committed offences against the country’s internal and external security” and “espionage for the French intelligence service”, alongside “corruption on earth”.
He was also accused of having insulted the “sanctity of Islam”.
Zam is the son of Shia cleric Mohammad Ali Zam, a reformist who once served in a government policy position in the early 1980s. The scholar wrote a letter published by Iranian media in July 2017, in which he said he would not support his son over AmadNews’ reporting and messages.
Separately, the judiciary spokesman said an appeals court had upheld a previous prison sentence for Fariba Adelkhah, a prominent researcher with dual French-Iranian citizenship.
Esmaili said she had been handed two separate sentences, one for five years, and another for one year on security charges, and that under Iranian law, the longer sentence is the one a convict serves. He said her time spent in jail would count towards the sentence.
Iranian officials disclosed last July that Adelkhah had been arrested on espionage charges. Those charges were later dropped, but security-related charges remained against her.
Adelkhah and her French fellow researcher, Roland Marchal, were held in Iran’s Evin Prison. Authorities released Marchal in March in an apparent prisoner swap for Iranian Jalal Ruhollahnejad, who had been held in France.