Iran has arrested filmmakers, bloggers, minorities and lawyers and imposed limits on the public's use of the Web to try to squelch dissent and contact with the outside world ahead of the country’s parliamentary elections on Thursday, the human rights group Amnesty International reported Monday.
Iranian authorities have detained more than 10 journalists, writers and bloggers, as well as members of religious and ethnic minorities since campaigning began, apparently to dissuade people from criticizing the government or participating in protests to mark the anniversary of "Arab Spring" uprisings around the Mideast, Amnesty said in a 71-page report.
The authorities also issued new rules in January requiring Internet cafe owners to install closed-circuit cameras and collect customers’ names and contact information, both of which must be kept for six months, it said.
"The noose just seems to be tightening," said Elise Auerbach, an Iran specialist for Amnesty. "The hand of the government seems to be everywhere and I think people have reason to fear that … there’s nowhere to hide."
Security forces -– including a new cyber police unit –- can monitor activists as they use personal computers in their homes. A new cyber army -- reportedly connected to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard -- has conducted attacks on websites at home and abroad, the report said.
Human Rights Watch also recently noted the government's focus on the Internet in the run-up to the elections for the 290-seat parliament, noting a judiciary threat that those who called for a boycott of the ballot -- as reformists and opposition activists have done -- would be prosecuted.
"Unfortunately it seems the only lesson authorities learned from the popular protests that followed the disputed (presidential) election (in) 2009 is that the free flow of information is an existential threat to their ability to rule absolutely," Joe Stork, Human Rights Watch's deputy Middle East director, said in January.
The Tor Network, which provides free software for anonymous use of the Internet, reported that on Feb. 9, Tehran began filtering keywords and throttling or shutting down access to sites that use a form of security called Secure Socket Layers, or SSL. The action is blocking email and some Web access for as many as 30 million Iranians who use SSL-protected sites, reported CBR Systems & Network Security, a European technology organization.
In early January, Iran’s intelligence minister said secret services had arrested several people on charges of spying for the United States and seeking to undermine the elections. State TV quoted Heidar Moslehias saying that the suspects were in touch with their contacts outside the country via the Internet, The Associated Press reported. Separately, a top Iranian law enforcement official described Google as an "espionage tool" in mid-January, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Five documentary directors and a producer-distributor with links to outside broadcasters were arrested in September. All were held in prison, with limited contact with their families, until they were all released on bail by mid-December.
Amnesty said that harassment and imprisonment of human rights activists also had increased as part of a "worsening overall human rights situation in Iran," includung the shuttering of several nonprofit groups. It also reported that public executions quadrupled from 2010 to 2011 as authorities sought to "strike fear into society."
Some observers see the large 2009 protests in Iran as the precursor to those of the 2011 Arab Spring. Iranian opposition leaders who called for the solidarity demonstrations in February 2011 -- Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi -- have been under de facto house arrest since then, Amnesty said, though Mehdi Karroubi’s wife was released last July.
"They (the Islamic Republic) are going to use everything they have to ensure that these elections are conducted in a peaceful way and that the turnout is high," Mohsen Milani, professor of politics and chair of the department of Government and International Affairs at the University of South Florida in Tampa, Fla., told msnbc.com.
They've "arrested people who in their mind are troublemakers" and are trying to stifle social media networks, Mohsen said. They've also noted they will step up security and have alerted people to the potential for violence -- a strategy they can use to tell the public, 'We told you so,' in case there are problems or declare victory, in the case there are not, he added.
"I’ve never seen the Islamic Republic … being as careful about elections as they are this time in terms of security measures. They are ready," he said.
Mohsen said he believed that Iran's "oppressive measures" would continue after the vote, warning, "I believe they will intensify in the coming month and year."
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