LONDON — The Iranian government has arrested relatives of Persian-language journalists working abroad for the BBC in a bid to silence them, the British Broadcasting Corporation said Friday.
BBC Director General Mark Thompson said the sister of a BBC Persian journalist was arrested last week and held in solitary confinement on unspecified charges at Evin Prison in Tehran, before being released on bail.
"Her treatment was utterly deplorable and we condemn it in the strongest terms," Thompson wrote in a blog, adding that it was only the latest incident "in a campaign of bullying and harassment by the Iranian authorities".
Human Rights Watch also raised concerns about the arrest. Its Middle East Director Sarah Leah Whitson warned it was "part of a wider campaign to harass Iranian journalists by putting pressure on them and their families".
Tehran was sending a clear message "that the government's long arm of repression can extend well beyond borders," she said.
Foreign Office Middle East Minister Alistair Burt said he utterly condemned Iran's "deplorable" tactics.
While it is not the first time the BBC has complained about Iranian harassment of its journalists, Thompson said the past few months had seen "increased levels of intimidation alongside disturbing new tactics.
"In recent months a number of relatives of members of BBC Persian staff have been detained for short periods of time by the Iranian authorities and urged to get their relatives in London to either stop working for the BBC, or to 'cooperate' with Iranian intelligence officials," he said.
Relatives' passports had been confiscated, preventing them leaving Iran, while BBC staff had been accused in the Iranian media of offences such as sexual assault, drug trafficking and converting from Islam to Christianity.
Thompson called on Tehran to repudiate the actions of its officials and urged governments and international bodies to help stop "this campaign of intimidation, persistent censorship and a disturbing abuse of power".
BBC Persian, based in London, is a multimedia news and information service for Persian speakers in Iran, Afghanistan, Tajikistan and around the world.
Iran has frequently accused the BBC of fuelling the unrest that broke out following the disputed re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2009.
An unnamed BBC staff member who spoke to Human Rights Watch said he and his colleagues had been exposed "to almost daily insults and personal attacks on various pro-government websites and blogs inside Iran".
But the targeting of relatives "is really a red line for us, and we can't stay silent", the BBC worker said.
Foreign Office minister Burt said the Iranian authorities had a "shameful track record" of using family members to put pressure on Iranian lawyers, journalists and human rights activists.
"Such deplorable tactics illustrate again the deteriorating human rights situation in Iran, and the desperation of the Iranian regime to silence any independent voices," he said.
"The international community has repeatedly called on the Iranian authorities to cease harassment and intimidation of journalists and to prevent illegal jamming of broadcasts. We will continue to do so."
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Photo by hughepaul from London, UK (BBC News helicopter watching over the cuts protest) [CC-BY-2.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons