Iran has executed Ruhollah Zam, a dissident accused of inspiring nationwide protests in 2017 through his high-profile Telegram channel, according to state-controlled media.
Mr Zam, 47, had been living in exile in France until 2019 when the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) claims it lured him back to the country and arrested him.
The IRGC also seized control of his popular anti-government Telegram channel, which at its peak had roughly 1.4 million subscribers exchanging stories and opinions in opposition to the country’s clerical regime.
He had been sentenced to death back in June after being convicted of “corruption on Earth”, a charge often used in Iran in cases which involve espionage or threats to overthrow the Iranian government.
France criticised his sentence as “a serious blow to freedom of expression and press freedom in Iran”.
Mr Zam’s popular Telegram channel and website were used to spread information about the protests in 2017, including their timings and location, as well as to share embarrassing information about officials within the country’s regime.
In a message broadcast on Iran’s state television last year, the IRGC claimed that its agents had captured him as part of a “complex operation using intelligence deception”.
He was based in France at the time of his arrest. It is unclear how the IRGC lured him to Iranian jurisdiction to arrest him, but in a statement it described him as being “guided into the country”.
Mr Zam appeared in a series of televised confessions throughout this year.
In these appearances, he apologises for his past activities and appears to weigh significantly less than he did in pictures taken before he was detained by the IRGC. In July, he said lost 30kg (4.7 stone) since his arrest.
The IRGC described Mr Zam as an important contributor to “the enemy’s media network” which was conducting “psychological warfare” and alleged that he was connected to intelligence services in France, Israel and the US.
Mr Zam said he had fled Iran after falsely being accused of collaborating with foreign intelligence services, and denied inciting violence on Telegram.
Dozens of people were killed during widespread protests in Iran across the 2017-18 new year.
Following the protests, authorities in Tehran blocked Iranians’ access to Instagram and Telegram, despite President Hassan Rouhani’s promise to allow “space for legal criticism” of the regime.
“Social media networks serve as major platforms for Iranians to discuss political, social and cultural issues; and mobile applications are being rapidly developed for business start-ups,” according to the Centre for Human Rights in Iran.
Kaveh Azarhoosh, a senior researcher at Small Media – a non-profit focused on information exchange in the Middle East – told Sky News at the time that the IRGC had posted on the Telegram channel after seizing it.
He said there was a “risk that they [the IRGC] might use it to contact innocent Iranians and lure them into false confessions or incriminating statements”.
Mahsa Alimardani, a PhD student at the Oxford Internet Institute who is researching the impact of Telegram on political communications in Iran, had told Sky News that the channel seizure was a propaganda coup for the IRGC.
“It’s unclear what Amad News’ impact on mobilising dissent during the 2017-18 protests were, but what is true is that it is an anti-regime platform, a source for sensational and viral content,” she said.
“It’s easy for Iranian authorities to blame a mass national protest movement on the nefarious intentions of a figure like Zam who they are now forcing to confess ‘crimes’ on Iranian television,” added Ms Alimardani, who also does research for the human rights organisation ARTICLE19.
“Ruhollah Zam is a significant figure,” she said.
“He is the son of a mid-level Iranian cleric, and he was able to leverage insider sources to access secret documents concerning national security and corruption, helping to fuel accusations against key figures within the regime such as the supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei.
“It’s not clear how the IRGC captured him, but the way that the IRGC took control of the channel and started posting about his arrest, and the subsequent television coverage of his arrest and confessions, is significant PR for them.”