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Taking part in the Iranian protests from afar

Cartoonist Nikahang Kowsar weighs in on the events in his home country from Toronto.

TORONTO — In the winter of 2000, when I first met Nikahang Kowsar, he had just been released from jail in Tehran.

It was, as it often is in Iran, a tumultuous time. The country was in the middle of parliamentary elections and hard-line conservatives were cracking down. Their accomplices in the judiciary were closing reformist newspapers practically every day. Kowsar, one of Iran’s best-known political cartoonists, became a target.

His sketches, published in three widely read newspapers, rattled the ruling theocracy. He was jailed — accused of mocking a powerful hard-line cleric — for a cartoon showing a crocodile shedding tears as his tail strangled a journalist.

“Those people are killing the press and then they pretend that the press is killing them,” he told me when, as a foreign correspondent for the Toronto Star, I met Kowsar in his Tehran apartment.

As a condition of his bail, he was banned from drawing cartoons for the rest of the election campaign. Supporters of the cleric he allegedly mocked, Ayatollah Mesbah-Yazdi, took to the streets in protest. Some chanted that Kowsar should be executed. Police then informed him that 48 of his past cartoons had broken the law.

He fled to Toronto in 2003. Today, half a world away, he takes part in the latest Iranian revolt through his blog, radio broadcasts, Facebook pages and cartoons.

“In a way, I think I'm there," said Kowsar, 39. “I'm chatting with people inside Iran probably three or four hours a day. I'm just sleeping four and a half hours because I don't want to miss a thing.”

Kowsar estimates 20,000 visitors daily read his Persian language blog, called “Notes from an angry exile.” Some 6,000 friends in Iran exchange messages on his Facebook pages and an estimated 100,000 Iranians listen to Amsterdam-based Radio Zamaneh — broadcast via the internet and satellite TV — on which Kowsar does a 10-minute daily analysis of the protests and Western media coverage.

Iranian authorities have tried to block the sites, but proxy servers and “mirror” sites have kept many Iranians reading and listening.

At one of the protests against alleged vote-rigging of the June 12 presidential election, a Tehran demonstrator held up a poster of a Kowsar cartoon — a giant foot, representing the hard-line Revolutionary Guards, squashing a voter. On it, a protester had written: “I will fight, I will die, I will get my vote back.”

His most recent cartoon is a showdown between a hand pointing a cellphone camera and two hands pointing a rifle.