On Saturday 12 December, the founder of the Telegram news channel Amadnews, Ruhollah Zam, was hanged in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison.
Zam was born in Shahr-e-Rey, just outside Tehran, in 1978. He first came to prominence in 2009 after the re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad when he was jailed for voicing his opposition.
In 2011, after his release from prison, Zam, together with his wife and young daughter Niaz fled the country and were granted asylum in France, living initially in Paris before moving to a small town near Toulouse after he received threats.
Two and a half years ago, Zam co-founded the Amadnews channel on Telegram, which is hugely popular in Iran – it has 50 million users there and was reported at one point to account for 60% of the country’s entire internet usage.
Amadnews became popular for its criticism of Iran’s leaders and informed descriptions on the 2017 protests, which started as a protest against the economic policies of the government before developing into wider protests against Iran’s leaders. Twenty-five people died during the nationwide protests.
The channel grew quickly to have a million subscribers but at the end of 2017 Telegram shut it down saying the channel had called for armed uprisings. The channel reappeared under a new same, Sedaiemardom (voice of the people), just a few months later.
The story of how he even came to be in Iran again is mysterious.
In 2019, it is believed that he was lured to Iraq from his exile in France to meet the grand Ayatollah Sistani, the spiritual leader of the Iraqi Shia Muslims. While there, he was captured by agents of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps which issued a statement saying he had been detained “in a complicated operation”.
The statement said: “Despite being under the guidance of the French intelligence service and the support of the US and Zionist intelligence services…, and being guarded round the clock by various means and covers, he fell into a trap laid by… the IRGC’s Intelligence Organization.”
He was thrown into Evin prison and tortured for months and forced to make televised confessions of his ‘crimes’.
In June this year, Zam was tried in front of the Islamic Revolutionary Court in Tehran, presided over by Judge Abolqasem Salav and convicted on 13 counts of “spreading corruption on earth”. He was sentenced to death.
Despite going to appeal, on 8 December, the supreme court announced it had upheld the death sentence.
Zam’s father, the moderate cleric Mohammad Ali Zam, has revealed on Instagram what happened after the sentence was confirmed.
Last Friday, he was telephoned by an Iranian intelligence agent who said he could come and visit his son in the notorious Evin prison but not to tell him that the sentence for execution had been confirmed. His father reports that during the visit the family started to cry and the agent was afraid that Ruhollah might find out why and told him.
“Don’t worry Ruhollah. These are happy tears from visiting you. Even if the execution is confirmed, the process would take a while to be carried out and we will inform you of the whole process.”
On Saturday 12 December at 8am French time, his eldest daughter Niaz received a WhatsApp call from a number she didn’t recognise. It was her father.
They talked about her studies and getting her diploma but after five minutes the call had to end and her father said goodbye. There was a finality in his tone and Niaz knew this would be the last time they would speak.
آخرین تماس، حجت قیامت
شنبه ساعت ١ بامداد در فرانسه و ٣:٣٠
بامداد به وقت ايران.
يه تماسي با من ميشه تو واتس آپ از شماره اي كه نميشناسم چون اين شماره با ٤٤+ شروع ميشد.
اولين بار جواب ندادم قطع كردم
گوشيم دوباره زنگ خورد و جواب دادم.
ادامه در کامنت اول.. pic.twitter.com/S7cGxuBIKA
— niaz zam (@niaz670) December 17, 2020
Just a few hours later, Zam was paraded in front of television cameras and hanged.
There has been widespread condemnation of his execution.
United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement, “The international community must continue to hold the regime accountable for its unconscionable actions…The Iranian people deserve a free and diverse media, not censorship, arrests, and the execution of journalists.”
The European Union said it “condemns this act in the strongest terms and recalls once again its irrevocable opposition to the use of capital punishment under any circumstances. It is also imperative for the Iranian authorities to uphold the due process rights of accused individuals and to cease the practice of using televised confessions to establish and promote their guilt.”
Masih Alinejad, author of The Wind in My Hair: My Fight for Freedom in Modern Iran and who had campaigned to prevent the execution of young Iranian wrestler Navid Afkari, told Index, “By killing Zam, the Islamic Republic has shown that it is not interested in diplomacy. It is ironic that Zam was named after Rohallah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic, an evil system that is not willing to tolerate dissent from journalists. Zam was a media pioneer who created the most influential news channel in recent memory.”
Javaid Rehman, UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran and Agnes Callamard, UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, said: “The conviction and execution of Mr Zam are unconscionable. The reports of his arrest, his treatment in detention, and the process of his trial, as well as the reasons for his targeting by the Iranian authorities, are a serious violation of Iran’s obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, including the right to freedom of opinion and expression and the right to life.
“It is clear that Ruhollah Zam was executed for expressing opinions and providing information on AmadNews that dissented from the official views of the Iranian Government.”
Index on Censorship’s CEO Ruth Smeeth has written a letter to the UN Secretary General condemning Zam’s murder.
She wrote: “Press freedom is a pillar of democracy. When journalists are targeted, all of society pays the price. Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights guarantees the right to freedom of opinion and expression to all…As a journalist, as a human rights activist, as a global citizen Ruhollah Zam should have been protected by the state of his birth, not murdered by them.”
Ruhollah Zam is survived by his wife Mahsa Razani and their two daughters.