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Iran charges female journalists who helped break Amini’s story with being CIA spies

A newspaper with a cover picture of Mahsa Amini, a woman who died after being arrested by Iranian morality police, is seen in Tehran on Sept. 18. (Wana News Agency via Reuters)
5 min

The two female Iranian journalists who helped break the story of Mahsa Amini, the 22-year-old Kurdish Iranian woman whose death in the custody of the so-called morality police last month sparked a nationwide uprising, were formally accused late Friday of being CIA spies and the “primary sources of news for foreign media” — the former a crime punishable by the death penalty in Iran.

Journalists Niloofar Hamedi and Elahe Mohammadi have been held in Iran’s notorious Evin prison since late September as Iran’s clerical leaders have struggled to contain an outpouring of public anger and protests calling for their overthrow. Women and young Iranians have been at the forefront of the uprising, the longest running demonstrations in decades.

In the joint statement sent to Iranian media late Friday local time, the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and the intelligence agency of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard, the highly-feared guardians of Iran’s security state, accused the CIA of orchestrating Hamedi and Mohammadi’s reporting, and said “allied spy services and fanatic proxies,” planned the nationwide, leaderless unrest.

As protests rock Iran, its most feared security force is lying in wait

The CIA, along with British, Israeli and Saudi spy agencies, “planned extensively to launch a nationwide riot in Iran with the aim of committing crimes against the great nation of Iran and its territorial integrity, as well as laying the groundwork for the intensification of external pressures,” the unsubstantiated statement charged. It also claimed without providing evidence that the two journalists were trained abroad and sent to provoke Amini’s family and spread disinformation.

Both Hamedi and Mohammadi’s top editors denied the charges Saturday and said the journalists were only doing their jobs.

“What they have referred to as evidence for their charges is the exact definition of journalists’ professional duty,” the Journalist Association of Iran said in a statement Saturday.

Journalists with two Iranian news outlets outside the country who were among the first to report on Amini’s case also condemned the charges and told The Washington Post that neither Hamedi nor Mohammadi were their original sources.

“This is a threat to other journalists, other media that if they continue publishing the news … they are going to have these charges,” said Aida Ghajar, a France-based reporter with the Iran Wire news outlet, started by a former Newsweek reporter.

“This scenario” of branding reporters as foreign spies “is the scenario that the Iranian regime always uses against the journalists,” she added.

Mohsen Moheimany, a reporter with London-based Iran International, another frequent target of Iranian state propaganda, also said that they relied on their own sources and called the accusations intended “to suppress the media and the opposition.”

In a possibly ominous sign, the head of the Revolutionary Guard warned Saturday that “today is the last day of the riots” — the corps’ harshest statement yet signaling it may intensify its wide-reaching crackdown on the protests, now in their seventh week.

Experts explain what exactly Iran's morality police do, and why women are risking their lives on the front lines to protest the unit. (Video: Julie Yoon/The Washington Post)

Rights groups say more than 200 people, including dozens of children, have been killed and more than 12,000 people arrested. Authorities on Monday began issuing the first charges against some 500 detained protesters.

Around 45 Iranian journalists have been among the arrested, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists. Most American news media, including The Post, are barred from reporting in Iran, where widespread cellular and internet communication outages in recent weeks have made reporting extremely difficult.

Washington Post correspondent Jason Rezaian was previously held in Evin prison for 544 days on sham charges of being a U.S. spy.

Hamedi, a reporter with the reformist daily newspaper Shargh, published a widely-shared report Sept. 16 from Kasra hospital in Tehran, where Amini died after being hospitalized Sept. 13 while in police custody for an alleged clothing violation. Hamedi also shared a photo of Amini’s distraught family in the hospital on her since deactivated Twitter account.

Iranian authorities claimed Amini had a heart attack; her family said police beat to death their daughter, also known by her Kurdish name, Jina.

Mohammadi, a reporter with Ham Mihan, another daily newspaper aligned with Iran’s reformist politicians, reported Sept. 17 from Amini’s funeral in her hometown of Saqqez in the northwestern Kurdistan province. Security forces attacked the funeral, where mourners shouted slogans against the Islamic Republic and women removed their mandatory headscarves in the uprising’s first major protest.

Security forces arrested Hamedi on Sept. 22 and Mohammadi on Sept. 29. The two have been held in and out of solitary confinement.

Despite the dangers of publicizing state abuses, reports about Amini’s case quickly began circulating.

Sajjad Khodakarami, an Istanbul-based Iranian journalist, said he first saw an Instagram story published late Sept. 13 by a witness at Kasra hospital sharing reports that a woman had been beaten into a coma by the morality police. Khodakarami contacted the person the following morning, who said he had been summoned by Iranian authorities and told to remove the post. Khodakarami, who tweeted about the emerging reports and worked with Iran International to cover the story, shared a screenshot of the Instagram post with The Post, but did not name the person to protect their security.

The editor in chief of Shargh, Mehdi Rahmanian, who has previously been arrested for the newspaper’s reporting, issued a statement Saturday denying the state’s accusations.

“Publishing the picture and the report about Mahsa Amini was the right thing to do and we were only doing our duty toward spreading the news,” he said. Rahmanian coordinated with Hamedi “at all stages of her work,” he added.

Gholamhossein Karbaschi, a reformist politician and editor in chief of Ham Mihan, told the semiofficial ILNA news agency Saturday that an open media environment in Iran “will be more beneficial to the country’s security.”