What “no mercy” against protests means inside Iran

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What “no mercy” means inside Iran: Sham trials, executions and targeting celebrities in a crackdown against protests

On Jan. 7 in the northern city of Karaj, Iran hanged two men: a karate champion and a martial arts coach. The punishment, the regime said, was for the crime of moharabeh, or “waging war against God.” They were the third and fourth protesters executed since demonstrations against the regime began in September.

The crackdown against the protesters — initially slow in coming — is now in full gear and taking many forms. Beyond the four men, two dozen others have been sentenced to death in fast-tracked trials. Another 19,000 have been jailed. And more than 500 have been shot at protests or died in custody, according to the U.S.-based Human Rights Activists News Agency (HRANA). More than 70 of the dead have been children.

As Grid has reported, the regime in Iran had initially appeared to struggle to find a response to the uprising sparked by the death last September of Mahsa Amini, who was in police custody for not correctly wearing her headscarf. Since then, hundreds of thousands of Iranians have joined the protests, defying curfews and other orders — and in some cases, calling not only for greater rights and freedoms but also for the overthrow of the theocracy. For a time, it wasn’t clear how severe the regime would be, given the scope of the protests and the range of their demands.

As a new year begins, the regime appears to have found its answer: brutal punishment, meted out in accordance with Sharia Law. In the words of the National Security Council of Iran, ‘the riots represent a war against the Islamic Republic of Iran’; in a Dec. 27 speech, President Ebrahim Raisi described the protesters as ‘enemies of the Iranian nation’; and Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei weighed in last week, accusing protesters who set fire to trash cans of “treason” and calling on “the responsible bodies to deal with treason seriously and justly.”

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For decades, Iran has equated crimes against the nation with crimes against God. Before he died in 1989, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder and first Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic, issued a fatwa, or religious edict, saying, “It is naïve to show mercy to those who wage war on God.” At the time, several in the clerical elite disagreed, but his successor Ali Khamenei has sidelined the more moderate clergy, favoring heavy-handed retribution toward those who question the tenets of the regime.

This retribution is what appears to be underway in Iran.

Those sentenced to death

More than twenty men, most in their twenties, are now on death row in Iran. Oslo-based Iran Human Rights (IHR) and other groups have identified more than 100 other detainees who they believe may face capital punishment. (In an unrelated but highly controversial move last week, Iran executed Alireza Akbari, a former senior defense official and dual British national, on charges of spying).

The protesters facing execution have been sentenced for treason, rebellion or “plotting to overthrow the Islamic Republic” — crimes of moharebeh in which a weapon is used with violence against security officials or the citizenry, which are clearly set out in the Iranian penal code as warranting capital punishment. All those on death row have been accused of attacking or killing a member of the Basij, the security forces most in evidence on the streets during protests — and all have denied the charges.

The numbers facing execution would be higher were it not for the fact that many are very young. According to a report by the House of Commons Library in London, the average age of those currently in custody is 15; the Iranian penal code specifies that those under the age of 18 cannot be sentenced to death.

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The Iranian government complains frequently that although its punishments may be harsh, it is wrongly accused by the international community of arbitrary justice. Officials often claim that the regime is strictly following the law. However, with capital crimes on the books with such vague labels as “war against God” or “corruption on earth,” interpretation of the law is broad. Justices are known to exercise wide discretion, particularly when it comes to capital punishment, which under Sharia Law can include hanging, execution by firing squad, stoning or even being thrown to the ground from a high elevation.

The recent executions have been public in nature — most notably the December hanging of 23-year-old Majidreza Rahnavard from a crane in the holy city of Mashhad. Public executions are not a new phenomenon in Iran — but no doubt they have a particularly chilling effect on those who are currently protesting against the regime.

Nothing random about the shootings

In other parts of the world, when the security forces of an authoritarian regime open fire on a demonstration, the dead are often those unfortunate enough to have been caught in the crossfire. But in today’s Iran, there may be a more systematic killing underway.

The Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) claims that many of the protesters killed in recent months were targeted for punishment. CHRI accused the government of persecuting specific groups, including athletes, journalists, singers and actors. The regime considers these protesters particularly dangerous because of their celebrity; as popular symbols, their social media support for the movement carries special weight.

The targeting of celebrities may also be designed to send a message: Earthly fame is of little consequence when the offense is a crime against God.

Many well-known Iranians, such as the former captain of the national soccer team, Ali Daei, have come out strongly in support of the protests, and many have featured the movement’s slogans and posters on their social media. Deputy Interior Minister Majid Mirahmadi has accused celebrities of playing a “steering role” in the unrest.

For some, that role has proved fatal. Ehsan Gasemifar, a national bodybuilding champion, and Mohammad Ghaemi, a professional soccer player, were both tracked by security forces during demonstrations and shot point-blank in the street with live ammunition. Celebrity rappers Toomaj Salehi and Saman Seydi (Yasin) were arrested, imprisoned and handed death sentences for the capital crime of “corruption on earth.” Like the others already on death row for crimes against God, they have also been tortured — Salehi, a hip-hop artist with over 700 thousand followers on Instagram, has reportedly attempted suicide as a result of his treatment in jail.

Others swept up in the crackdown include Oscar-winning actress Taraneh Alidoosti (“The Salesman”), now out on bail, whose meme of herself shaking out her hair in the Tehran bazaar was liked by over 1 million followers; singer and songwriter Mona Borzoui; and Faroush Esmi, an 18-year-old blogger arrested in the western city of Hamadan and recently transferred to Evin prison in Tehran.

Journalists are also being targeted; more than 20 are now in jail. These include the Kurdish female journalist Ziba Omidifar, one of the first to report on Mahsa Amini’s death. She was transferred — semiconscious, presumably due to torture — from Sanandaj prison in Kurdistan to a hospital last week.

The most recent group to suffer the regime’s wrath are doctors. Aida Rostami, a 36-year-old emergency room physician, went missing in Tehran for several days before her family located her body at a morgue in the vast cemetery of Behesht-e Zahra, south of the city. She was covered in bruises, both arms were broken and she appeared to have been a victim of sexual abuse. The police first explained that her wounds were the result of a car accident, then changed their story to say she’d jumped off a bridge.


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Rostami was known for bringing medicine to those injured during the demonstrations. Her hospital, along with several others in the city, had gained a reputation for being unsafe; patients wounded while protesting were being plucked from their beds by riot police and hauled off to prison. Even ambulances were turning into death traps, carrying some of the injured directly to jail rather than to hospital. This has prompted a number of doctors to treat people at their homes, often at great personal risk. Rostami is not the only doctor to have disappeared.

In custody — and in fear

The thousands of other Iranians in custody are being held on lesser charges — meaning, neither “war against God” nor “corruption on earth.”

Human rights groups believe many of these detainees — most of whom have been accused of agitating against the regime or not wearing a hijab — are at risk of injury or torture while in custody. According to reports from Amnesty International and other sources, more than a dozen detainees have already died from wounds inflicted under torture, much as Mahsa Amini did at the hands of the Morality Police.

Women are at particular risk, for two reasons: Sexual assault is not protected by Iran’s Islamic Penal Law, and the crime is sometimes used to frame the women themselves. If a rape is not proved by four male witnesses, a woman’s complaint under Sharia Law becomes a confession of adultery, punishable by flogging or stoning.

Human rights activist Narges Mohammadi, herself incarcerated in Evin Prison, wrote a letter to the BBC to mark the 100th day of the protests in which she described the sexual assault suffered by many of the women inmates. It was, she wrote, her duty to bring to international attention the gravity of these assaults, and the iniquities of the regime’s interpretation of Quranic laws. Sexual abuse has been a common practice in Iran for decades, but its incidence has risen significantly as more women have been arrested.

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Complaints lodged by the inmates, whether men or women, are regularly ignored and denied by the Iranian authorities. Mohammadi wrote her letter despite the fact that it put her at risk of additional years in detention beyond the 16 she already faces; she said she believed that speaking out was worthwhile and that global media attention would make a difference.

So far, the regime appears immune to foreign condemnation.

More executions expected

In his Dec. 27 speech, Raisi vowed that “no mercy” would be shown to the anti-government protesters.

That’s in keeping with Raisi’s reputation since his accession to the presidency in June 2021. The country has hardened its religious grip and increasingly reflected Raisi’s own legacy; in 1988, he was a leading member of what came to be called Tehran’s ”Death Committee,” responsible for what Amnesty International estimates were more than 5,000 state-ordered killings of political prisoners, a record that earned him American sanction.

Since Raisi took office, executions in Iran have skyrocketed. Last year, the number reached 553, the second highest in the world (after China) and almost double the 2021 figure in Iran. On Dec. 5, the regime hanged a woman in Isfahan, the 26th woman to be executed since Raisi took office. It appears that the Raisi approach is now in effect as a concerted regime response to the current protests. As January dawned with the hangings in Karaj, two more death sentences were handed down in rushed judicial proceedings — against a high-profile soccer-player, Amir Nasr-Azadani, and 22-year-old Mohammad Ghobadlou, accused of running over two security officers with his car.

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For those who have been sentenced to death, appeals are possible — but so far the Supreme Court, proceeding without due process, has upheld every death sentence in a matter of hours. The judges are religious figures, and the plaintiffs’ lawyers are barred from attending the deliberations. Human rights groups, including Amnesty International, describe the secret proceedings as sham trials. Several judges responsible for the recent verdicts have chilling reputations that have earned them nicknames within the Iranian judiciary, such as the EU-sanctioned Abolqasem Salavati, who is known as “Mr. Execution.”

The government often provides video footage to support its accusations, but so far, all those in the dock have denied the veracity of the recordings. These defendants have also buckled under what human rights groups describe as torture to deliver false confessions. Pictures of Rahnavard before he was executed in December showed his arm bandaged; it was thought to have been broken because it was tattooed with the old, pre-revolutionary Iranian insignia of the Lion and the Sun. The security forces would likely have interpreted the tattooed emblem as a sign of disloyalty toward the Islamic Republic.

And while the police are pressuring families of the detained to remain silent, social media in Iran is filled with clips, often posted by the mothers of the condemned, pleading to keep the names of their children alive.

Meanwhile, in Isfahan, Nasr-Azadani’s hometown, a gallows has been set up in a small square, anticipating a public hanging. And outside Ghobadlou’s prison in Karaj, crowds have gathered in vigil for the past few days.

Thus far, the international outcry over the recent executions and death sentences has elicited no comment from the Iranian regime. Mahmood Amiry-Moghaddam, director of Iran Human Rights, warned that unless “the political cost of the executions is increased significantly, we will be facing mass executions.”

Thanks to Brett Zach for copy editing this article.

  • Roxane Farmanfarmaian
    Roxane Farmanfarmaian

    Special Contributor

    Roxane Farmanfarmaian is director of international studies and global politics at the University of Cambridge Institute for Continuing Education and a senior research fellow at King’s College London.