TEHRAN, Iran – Iran's police chief on Friday warned opposition supporters not to use cell phones and e-mail messages to organize protest rallies against the government, saying those who do so will be prosecuted and punished.
Gen. Ismail Ahmadi Moghaddam said spreading the word of the opposition through Internet or cell phone SMS is a crime that deserves severe punishment and that the authorities would continue monitoring those systems.
The remarks are the latest reflecting the government's frustration at various imaginative ways the opposition has sought to rally supporters following the disputed June presidential election.
A harsh government crackdown has left the opposition with little means to make its voice heard. Almost all pro-reform newspapers have been closed since the June 12 vote in which President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was declared the winner. Those still in circulation have been openly threatened against publishing opposition statements. Iranian state media, controlled by hard-liners, regularly ignore the opposition.
Pro-reform Web sites are also blocked, making it difficult for statements, such as those of opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi, to be seen by the wider public.
However, Iran's tech-savvy and mostly young opposition activists have turned to cell phone SMS and e-mails as a potent weapon in organizing anti-government rallies. In response, cell phone service is regularly blocked during opposition demonstrations — but often, not before the message gets out.
"These people must know when they send the SMS messages or e-mails out, these systems are completely under (our) control," Moghaddam was quoted as saying by the semiofficial ISNA news agency. "These individuals should not assume ... they can hide their identities. That is a wishful thinking."
Moghaddam added that those who continue to use cell phones and e-mails in service of the opposition would be punished. "Those involved in organizing or issuing appeals have committed a worse crime than those who take to the streets," he said.
The opposition says more than 80 protesters have been killed in the postelection crackdown, although the government puts the number of confirmed dead at less than 40. At least eight people died in clashes between security forces and opposition protesters in late December, the worst bloodshed since the height of the unrest last summer.
In the past, Moghaddam has warned opposition supporters to stay off the streets or face harsh consequences, saying the "era of tolerance is over. Anyone attending such rallies will be crushed."
The SMS and e-mailing appear to be part of wider back-to-basic tactics used by the opposition, such as pamphlets and graffiti.
Other tactics include scribbling pro-opposition statement on banknotes, mostly in the signature green color of the opposition movement. This has riled authorities and the central bank has scrambled to pull the notes out of circulation.