It was about 7:30 p.m. EST when our cell phone used for security news rang. On the line was Ahmad-Batbi, a spokesman for HRA-Iran.org. His side of the story relating to the events that resulted in the IRGC led shutdown of 29 websites shocked us. The IRGC said they hacked the sites to take them down, but he said the 30 people arrested were tortured for their access.
The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) announced that its cyber teams hacked 29 websites linked to US espionage. In addition, 30 people were arrested on charges of waging a US-backed cyber war. [The original coverage by The Tech Herald is here.]
The IRGC’s claims were backed by two state news agencies, IRNA and FARS, who reported that the sites taken down were linked to the Mojahedin-e Khalq Organization, and other US-backed war networks.
We checked into the list of domains closed by the IRCG, and during the course of researching things, reached out to GoDaddy, IX Webhosting, and the contact information on one of the domains that had the most presence; hra-iran.org. It was from this contact that we came to be in contact with Ahmad-Batbi, who offered his side of the story.
What we were looking for in reaching out for information, was any confirmation that the Iranian government, via the IRGC, did in fact take his domain offline. If so, was it hacked as claimed? What Ahmad-Batbi gave us was that exact confirmation and more.
Ahmad-Batbi explained that the 30 people arrested in the takedown operation performed by the IRGC were tortured for their access to the various websites, and as such the sites were taken down by physical violence, and not hacking.
“They have 30 members of our group held hostage, including the sister of one of our members, who has nothing to do with this matter. Each of the 30 hostages is a human rights activist and nothing more,” he stressed.
Those arrested, Iranian officials say, were linked to efforts to fight against filtering in the country, as well as creating a secure telephone and data communication ground for making interviews with Radio Farda, Radio Zamaneh, Voice of America and other western media. Those are just some of the charges, there were others including creating security for Internet users.
Because of those charges, according to our conversation with Ahmad-Batbi and a report by Reporters Without Borders, they are dissidents, considered “mohared” or enemies of God, and could face death by hanging.
The Revolutionary Guards is the military group founded shortly after Iran's 1979 revolution. The group includes Intelligence, Navy, Army, and Air Force units, as well as the Basij paramilitary force. The Basij is touted as the group behind all of the physical punishment handed out to protestors during last summer’s elections in Iran.
Recently, a senior commander of the IRCG underlined the force's willingness to confront all types of enemy threats against the Iranian nation. The unspoken meaning in the statement is that they are willing to go to extremes to do this.
“The IRGC enjoys the required level of preparedness to confront soft and hard threats simultaneously. Wherever the Revolution needs, the IRGC and Basij are ready to defend this divine gift (Islamic Revolution),” Lieutenant Commander of IRGC Ground Force General Abdullah Araqi said.
Araqi added that the Iranian Armed forces should “…undergo the training courses needed for future battlefields so that they will be able to confront and resist the enemies in the form of small groups. These forces should even be ready for combat in cumbersome situations.”
If Ahmad-Batbi’s story is true, then the IRGC will do what they feel necessary to combat enemies of the Islamic Revolution, including torturing members for their Internet access so that websites can be shutdown.
According to Reporters Without Borders, “The regime also created fake Internet websites supposedly run by political organizations or the foreign media, on which surfers are invited to send in emails, videos, and post notices about rallies. This method thus allows authorities to accuse Internet users of being spies acting on behalf of foreign organizations.”
Considering the nature of hra-iran.org, being one of the largest organizations to propagate state censored information to the outside world, the members arrested might have been snared in a similar fashion.
"Freedom is the way to reach god...nothing is going to stop us," said Ahmad-Batbi, closing our conversation and placing the finishing touches on his story, stressing the ultimate goal to get information out to the masses.
While The Tech Herald cannot prove beyond all doubt that the thirty people arrested were tortured for their access so that the sites could be shut down, the randomness of Ahmad-Batbi’s call, and the conviction with which he told his story, led to this report.
Also taken into account were the eyewitness reports of Basij brutality during the protests last summer, along with the startling and horrific video placed online that detailed the shootings and beatings protestors suffered. Moreover, there's the fact that Iran refused to let a U.N. torture investigator in to the country, backtracking on its pledge to do so.
Again, we have no proof, other than with his own words, that the story Ahmad-Batbi told was true. When more information becomes available, we will update this article.