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Iranian man arrested for impersonating cabinet members on Facebook

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For the past several weeks, Iranians have been discussing how so many of the government’s ministers have joined Facebook, despite the fact that the social network is banned in the country. 

It turns out, however, that only one cabinet member, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, uses Facebook. The rest had accounts that were started by an unrelated individual, a man who has since been arrested for imitating the politicians. 

The offender has not been identified, nor has the way he accomplished the impersonation been explained. 

Some well-connected Iranian companies and government agencies are provided VPNs (virtual private networks) that allow them to connect to the global Internet with little or no filtering. For the vast majority of Iranians, however, it is a difficult road to travel. 

Iran has begun to roll out its own dedicated, highly filtered Internet, nicknamed the “halal Internet.” The country has also introduced a video sharing site, Mehr, with the same level of censorship. 

Despite the Iranian government’s dedication to censorship and its attempt to replace the largely free worldwide Web with a highly engineered Islamically focused and politically limited version, still 30 million out of the country’s 75 million people are online. 

This is not the first time a Facebook impersonator has been arrested in the Middle East. Five years ago, Fouad Mourtada was sentenced to three years in prison for creating a Facebook page for King Mohammed VI’s younger brother, Prince Moulay Rachid. He was eventually pardoned by the king. 

His intention, he claimed, was to honor the prince. The reason for the Iranian Facebook impersonator’s actions is unknown. It could be critical, it could be satirical, and it could be an homage. One thing is certain: In Iran, it’s simply criminal. 

In 2005, a teenager was sentenced to a year in the Iranian equivalent of San Quentin Prison, along with 124 lashes. This teenager, whose name is being withheld in deference to the life he’s made since then, weighed perhaps 120 pounds and faced a beating that lasted for an hour. 

It remains to be seen whether the unnamed Facebook parodist will face a similar fate.

Illustration by Jason Reed