TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — An Iranian court has sentenced an actress known for her reformist political activism to 18 months in prison on security charges, newspapers reported Tuesday, in another sign of the underlying tensions between Iran's hard-liners and calls for greater openness by new President Hassan Rouhani.
The reports came a day after authorities ordered the closure of the pro-reform Bahar daily in connection to a commentary it published on the Prophet Muhammad, citing a law authorizing media closures over articles deemed to violate Islamic values or insult Islam.
Iran has shown some signs of easing political restrictions since the moderate-leaning Rouhani took office in August. Dozens of prisoners held on political charges have been freed, and a prominent artistic center known as the House of Cinema has reopened.
But the case over the 24-year-old actress, Pegah Ahangarani, shows how centers of power in Iran often work at cross-purposes.
The judiciary is controlled by the country's ruling clerics, headed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. He has given the green light so far to some of Rouhani's main international initiatives, such as outreach to Washington despite opposition from some hard-line groups. But Khamenei and his inner circle appear cautious on fast-paced domestic reforms that could further anger Rouhani's opponents.
Ahangarani, who has appeared in about 20 films, has been detained twice since the protests in 2009 over the disputed re-election of then President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, but she was released without publicly announced charges. Since 2011, she has been banned from traveling abroad.
The Chicago Film Festival is currently showing Ahangarani's latest film, "Darband," about a university female student who becomes the roommate of a young woman wrestling with financial problems.
Tuesday's report by the pro-reform Shargh daily quoted Ahangarani's mother, Manijeh Hekmat, as saying the actress has been sentenced to 18 months. She said it is unclear who filed the complaint against Ahangarani, but noted the charges including "action against national security and links to foreign media." Ahangarani can appeal the ruling.
Shortly after Rouhani's election victory, Ahangarani asked him at a public meeting to appoint a culture minister who would be able to deliver on the president's promises of "freedom of thought and expression." She also said "incompetent" officials were the country's "biggest enemy."
In 2011, an Iranian court sentenced filmmaker Jafar Panahi to six years in house arrest and gave him 20-year ban on filmmaking after he was convicted of "making propaganda" against Iran's ruling system. Panahi, however, has been seen at recent cultural events in Tehran.
In reaction to the verdict, many movie-lovers joined a cyber-campaign urging authorities to reconsider.
"It is frustrating," said Ahmad Abri, 29, a moviegoer outside the Qods cinema in central Tehran. "I did not expect an actress to get a jail term for her political views."
Another moviegoer, Zahra Navidi, said she had hoped that authorities had learned that "cultural and political problems cannot be solved by prison."
Many artists were reluctant to comment on the case to international media, apparently fearing a similar fate as the actress. One post on Twitter criticized the subdued reaction: "The young girl is in prison to teach courage to men."