Iranian authorities executed journalist Roohollah Zam by hanging on December 12, 2020 after sentencing him to death on anti-state charges for his coverage of protests in 2017. Intelligence agents of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) lured Zam to Iraq, where he was abducted on October 14, 2019, and taken to Iran, according to news reports.
Zam was an Iranian journalist who founded and managed Amad News, a website and channel on Telegram that reported and shared anti-government news, according to CPJ’s review of the Telegram posts. He also gave commentary to foreign outlets such as the U.S.-funded Voice of America Persian Service.
In 2009, Zam took part in street protests against the re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, after which he was briefly imprisoned before fleeing to Malaysia and then to France, according to the state-run Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA).
From exile, Zam launched Amad News in 2015; the website went offline in 2017, but the Telegram channel had about 1.4 million followers before it was shut down on December 30, 2017, at the request of the Iranian government, which accused it of “encouraging violence,” according to news reports and CPJ’s review of the channel. The account later posted as Sedaie Mardom (People’s Voice), which shared videos of labor protests and reports on alleged corruption among Iranian officials.
News reports said Zam was lured to Iraq by the promise of a meeting with Grand Ayatollah Sistani, a prominent Shiite cleric in that country. Shirine Nadjafi, who worked as an administrator of the Amad News Telegram channel, told Iran International that Zam was invited to the meeting. His friend Hassan Fereshtian said in August that Zam told him someone close to Sistani promised him an exclusive interview with the Ayatollah in Iraq as a first step to launch a TV channel.
Zam traveled to Iraq through Jordan. On his arrival in Baghdad on October 14, 2019, the IRGC detained him, and after a day took him to Iran, according to the BBC Persian Service and the state-run outlets ISNA and Young Journalists’ Club. On December 17, 2020, Sistani’s office issued a statement denying that it played a role in luring Zam to Iraq and saying it had received assurances from the chief of Iran’s judiciary, Ebrahim Raisi, that Sistani’s name had not been used to set a trap for Zam.
A few hours after Zam was detained, Iranian state media broadcast a statement by the IRGC accusing him of working with French, Israeli, and U.S. intelligence agencies. The statement said that Iranian intelligence agents “guided” Zam into the country, but did not elaborate.
Shortly after the statement was disseminated, Iranian state TV aired a video, uploaded by the IRGC-affiliated outlet Tasnim News Agency, which depicted Zam blindfolded in a car, and then featured him apologizing for his actions and saying that “basically trusting any government is wrong, particularly those governments that show they don’t have good relations with the Islamic Republic, such as France, the U.S., Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey.”
After Zam’s apology was aired, the IRGC statement and a screenshot from the video were posted to the Amad News Telegram channel. CPJ could not determine who made those posts.
Zam was the son of Shiite cleric Mohammad Ali Zam, a reformist who held several government positions in 1980s and 2000s, according to the Young Journalists’ Club. Mohammad Ali Zam issued a statement on October 27, 2019, denying any role in his son’s arrest and thanking Iranian authorities for returning his “misguided” son back to the country, according to the Young Journalists’ Club.
On February 9, 2020, Branch 15 of Tehran’s Revolutionary Court announced 17 charges against Zam, including working with French, Israeli, and U.S. intelligence agencies; spreading false news and propaganda; acting against national security; insulting holy Islamic values, law enforcement agents, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and the late Ayatollah Khomeini; espionage; spreading corruption; collecting classified information; amassing wealth from illegitimate sources; encouraging people to break national order and security; collusion against national security; and creating and joining a disobedient or hostile group, according to reports by the exile-run news website IranWire and the Human Rights Activists News Agency, a U.S.-based outlet that covers Iran.
Zam’s trial by Judge Abolqasem Salavati at the Branch 15 court began on February 9 and concluded on June 9, 2020, after six hearings, according to those reports, which stated that Zam pleaded not guilty and said he had only worked as a journalist and had not committed any crimes.
On June 30, judiciary spokesperson Gholam Hossein Esmaili announced that Zam was sentenced to death, the state-run Young Journalists’ Club reported. On July 8, Zam’s lawyer, Dabir Daryabeigi, said he had appealed the sentence, according to the Human Rights Activists News Agency.
On December 8, Esmaili told reporters that the Supreme Court had rejected the appeal and confirmed the lower court’s death sentence, according to reports.
On December 12, Iranian state media announced that Zam had been executed by hanging. It referred to him as the “leader of the riots,” referring to the 2017 anti-government protests, according to reports by The Associated Press and Reuters. Zam’s father was permitted to visit him in Tehran’s Evin Prison the day before his execution, on the condition he not tell his son he was about to be executed, according to the AP.
U.N. High Commissioner of Human Rights Michelle Bachelet condemned the execution and called on Iranian authorities to cease using “vague national security charges to suppress independent voices” and from using the death penalty.
The statement also expressed “serious concerns that the apprehension of Zam outside the territory of Iran could amount to an abduction and that his subsequent transfer to Iran for trial may not have respected due process guarantees.”
CPJ was unable to contact Iran’s Ministry of Justice or the judiciary of Tehran province via their websites, which were not functioning in late 2020. CPJ emailed Iran’s mission to the United Nations in September and December 2020 for comment on Zam’s case, but did not receive a response.