World

02.20.14

New Facebook Project Imitates Virtual Iranian Prison

A new Facebook project and art installation aim to bring attention to Iran’s jailed dissidents by letting users experience life behind bars through social media.

What if you signed onto Facebook, but instead of seeing your profile, your Timeline and News Feed reflect what life would be like as a jailed Iranian political protester?

You’ll be able to experience your social media from behind virtual bars early this March, with the launch of an upcoming multi-platform campaign called Unlock Iran. The project hopes to bring attention to the more than 800 “prisoners of rights” in Iran’s jails, and put Iran’s dismal human-rights record front and center during Tehran’s nuclear negotiations and ahead of next month’s UN Human Rights Council.

The Unlock Iran campaign’s website will launch on March 3, guiding users on a Facebook-oriented tour of what it’s like to be imprisoned in Iran.

Early Tuesday morning, as snow fell on New York City, representatives of Unlock Iran and the photographic Inside Out Project posted 11 portraits of imprisoned Iranian activists—teachers, lawyers, journalists—and two of recently executed activists, including poet Hashem Shabani, prominently on a wall across the street from the United Nations Headquarters.

“When we speak about executions and people being tortured in prison, a lot of this just becomes statistics in people’s minds,” says Gissou Nia, the executive director of the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center. “We seldom see the human faces that color what the statistics mean.” The New Haven-based group has spent a decade investigating human-rights abuses in Iran and is spearheading the project. (For the record, they counted 624 executions in the country last year.)

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The project was done in collaboration with French artist JR and his Inside Out venture. (Unlock Iran)

But the IHRDC realized that while the 50-page reports they publish are ideal for U.N. agencies, they’re too heavy to garner wider attention. That’s why, with Unlock Iran, they’re shunning the legalese in favor of social media and art with the help of renowned French street artist and social commentator JR, whose campaign of plastering building-sized human portraits has thrust him into the spotlight of the art world and beyond.

The aim, Nia says, is simple: “To have these faces be displayed prominently in the middle of New York City, this bustling, cosmopolitan city, and take these individuals from the prisons where they’ve been hidden and bring them, quite literally, into the light.”

The Unlock Iran campaign’s website will launch on March 3, guiding users on a Facebook-oriented tour of what it’s like to be imprisoned in Iran. If visitors connect their social media account, they’ll see their own timeline altered to show what their life would be like if they were held in prison, and their friends will consist of the 10 photographed activists.

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Unlock Iran

The center plans to pour some of the most shocking research into the upcoming site. It will format data for a social audience, compiling a comprehensive list of all Iranians jailed for human-rights advocacy, and allowing users to filter down to, say, how many Christians or teachers are behind bars. Nia hopes the information will be utilized not just by curious people across the globe, but also by government officials and decision makers.

It’s high time for this campaign, she says. After eight years of a conservative government that eroded human rights in Iran, President Hassan Rouhani took office in August, in what Nia calls “a real opening for positive change.” He’s even indicated interest in releasing prisoners of rights, she says. But, Nia says, “I don’t think that kind of action can come about without the international community playing a role.”

The Unlock Iran campaign is sandwiched between with the Iranian nuclear negotiations that began on Tuesday in Vienna, and the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva coming next month.

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Bahareh Hedayat, left, a women's rights activist, and Abdolfattah Soltani, a founding member of the Defenders of Human Rights Center, are imprisoned currently. (Unlock Iran)

“While those negotiations are going on we absolutely need to carve out a portion of that attention for human-rights concerns,” says Nia, who hopes the campaign will elevate the issue into the public consciousness and spark an online conversation so powerful it might actually effect change. Meanwhile, the IHRDC will be meeting with governments to advocate against Iran’s restrictions on freedom, and ensure it’s a global priority.

Iran may not be as villainized as North Korea or Syria these days, Nia says, but their track record on rights is a chronic issue. Iranian officials are notoriously uncooperative in discussing prisoners of rights, and often refuse to even acknowledge their presence. This campaign is an attempt to bring recognition to individuals thrown in prison simply for exercising their human rights, she says.

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Portraits of 13 Iranians imprisoned or executed for their activism hang across from UN Headquarters. (Unlock Iran)

But it’s a sensitive topic to throw into an already volatile mix. “A common argument has been, ‘Let’s not talk about human rights now, let’s talk nuclear and from there we can engage in discussions of human rights,’” Nia says. But the nuclear deal on the table “would include basically all that’s in the kitchen sink,” from resolutions on the war in Syria to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—everything except for human rights. It’s a glaring omission. “I see it as a central part of the conversation and there’s no reason to disclude it for expediency or fear that a deal won’t go through,” Nia argues.

It’s personal as well for Nia, whose parents left Iran to come to the U.S. After watching the 2009 political protests unfold, the young lawyer felt drawn to focus her human-rights experience back on her ancestral land. At the time, she was working on Yugoslav war crime trials at the International Criminal Tribunal. One day, she was sitting in a courtroom in the Hague listening to a Bosnian general give testimony, but was “pretty naughtily” scrolling through her Twitter feed and reading about the demonstrations. Soon after, she left her job there to work for the IHRDC.

Now, she travels to Turkey, Malaysia and Iraqi Kurdistan to track down testimony from Iranian refugees, but she hasn’t been back to Iran since 2008. “I could go back,” she says, “but I don’t think there’d be any guarantee I would leave again, if you know what I mean.”