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Iranian Hard-Liners Link Afghan Girl’s Killing To Telegram Messaging App

An Iranian girl holds a banner bearing a portrait of supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei during a campaign meeting of the head of the conservatives grand coalition in February.
An Iranian girl holds a banner bearing a portrait of supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei during a campaign meeting of the head of the conservatives grand coalition in February.

After a horrifying crime sent shock waves through Iranian society, hard-line conservatives found the perfect scapegoat -- technology.

"When there are pornography websites and Internet freedom, any underage child can easily buy a SIM card and access this material," the ultraconservative news outlet wrote in a recent commentary. "The result is the bitter tragedy that we are witnessing today."

The website, which has ties to prominent hard-liners, is referring to the April 9 killing of a 6-year old Afghan girl that has prompted an outpouring of remorse among ordinary Iranians.

The outcry over the death of Setayesh Qoreishi, allegedly at the hands of an Iranian teenager, has been fueled by the widespread belief that the girl was sexually assaulted and her body doused with acid in an attempt to cover up the crime. Neither assumption has been been confirmed by police, who are still awaiting autopsy results.

But while society has taken the tragedy as an opportunity to question the treatment of minorities on Iranian soil, Rajanews was in no mood for self-reflection.

Running with the belief that a sexual assault occurred, the news website, which has close ties to a former member of the powerful Guardians Council, blamed the messaging app Telegram for motivating the accused teenager to commit the crimes.

Rajanews claimed the boy, who reportedly confessed to the killing while being interrogated by police, had used Telegram to access pornography on his mobile phone.

“The underage boy, who was 15 or 16, bought an android phone and installed Telegram on it and entered a sea of pornographic channels," the commentary read. "He went into a sea that turned red with blood.”

That, apparently, is enough to motivate a teen to commit unspeakable acts, although the commentary does not explain how or why.

Telegram, one of the few digital social platforms not filtered or banned in Iran, has become the most popular messaging and content-sharing application in the country. According to a poll by the Iranian Students News Agency, one-quarter of the population -- or about 20 million Iranians -- use the app.

Setayesh Qoreishi
Setayesh Qoreishi

Telegram has come under fire for spreading "immoral" content, and Iran's main Internet watchdog has met to discuss filtering the site. But the Supreme Council for Cyberspace decided there was no basis to do so, and the app has continued to operate unhindered.

Pinning the blame on Telegram was seen by some as a way for conservatives to capitalize on the situation and regain some of the ground they have lost to more moderate political forces.

"The fact that a killing took place in a part of the country has filled the hearts of all Iranians with pain for the victim," Iranian lawmaker Gholam Ali Jafarzadeh Imanabadi was quoted as saying by the ILNA news agency on April 22. "However, linking the issue with Telegram and cyberspace just indicates the size of the damage that [hard-liners] have suffered in the elections."

Iran has one of the world's toughest online censorship regimes, with tens of thousands of websites, including social media and news sites, filtered to remove content deemed sensitive or immoral.

"[Hard-liners] are after filtering cyberspace so that they limit information and channel it to their benefit," Imanabadi said. “However, this will never happen. People get information through various ways."

Outpouring Of Support

Iranian media has been criticized for initially failing to cover Qoreishi's killing, but the overwhelming response of the Iranian people has kept the crime and its ramifications in the public eye.

Many took to social media to condemn the killing and to question whether negative attitudes toward Afghan migrants and refugees may have contributed to the tragedy. In a show of solidarity, dozens joined Afghan nationals in an unauthorized but peaceful protest outside the Afghan Embassy in Tehran, before it was dispersed by police.

Officials have pledged to see that Qoreishi's killer is punished to the full extent of the law, and street graffiti honoring the victim has surfaced on the streets of Tehran.

As the case has placed a spotlight on the estimated 1 million Afghans living in Iran, many of whom claim to face violence and injustice in the Islamic republic, the Iranian media have been keen to report that the victim's family has been satisfied with the handling of the case.

Afghanistan's Tolo News, however, paints a different story, saying that the family has called on Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to intervene and make sure the perpetrator is brought to justice.

RFE/RL's Radio Farda contributed to this report

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    Frud Bezhan

    Frud Bezhan is the editor for Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan in the Central Newsroom at RFE/RL. Previously, he was a correspondent and reported from Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Turkey. Prior to joining RFE/RL in 2011, he worked as a freelance journalist in Afghanistan and contributed to several Australian newspapers, including The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.