Three protesters face death in Iran, in year of more than 200 executions

By Miriam Berger, The Washington Post, May 17, 2023 at 4:52 p.m. EDT

Cars and crowds gathered outside Dastgerd prison in the Iranian city of Isfahan on Sunday night, in the hopes that their demonstration could halt the execution of three men facing death on charges connected to the anti-government protests that began last year and swept the country.

Days earlier, Iran’s state broadcaster had aired footage of the harried-looking men — Majid Kazemi, Saeed Yaqoubi and Saleh Mirhashemi — appearing to confess and incriminate one another. Rights groups said the statements, which authorities often air ahead of executions, were very likely given under torture or duress.

The men survived the night. But the executions, for which authorities have not publicly provided a date, are thought to be imminent. The three are not alone: In response to the protests, Tehran has wielded the threat of capital punishment to crack down on and deter dissent, local and international rights groups say, amid a spate of executions in 2023 — at least 209 in just five months, according to the United Nations.

Executions overall were on the rise in Iran last year, according to human rights group Amnesty International’s annual report on global executions, released this week — a trend that appears set to continue.

Since December, Iran has executed four men for alleged crimes committed during the protests. Forty have been charged with capital offenses and the Supreme Court has upheld eight cases, the Isfahan ones included, according to Skylar Thompson, the head of global advocacy and accountability at HRANA, a Virginia-based activist news agency focused on Iran.

The three men are accused of fatally shooting two members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’s Basij volunteer force, and one police officer, on Nov. 16, 2022, during the height of the “women, life, freedom” movement that erupted this fall amid protests rejecting clerical rule. The ordeal became known as the Isfahan House case after a historical site close to the alleged attack.

The three men were arrested on Nov. 21. After a swift trial, one of the judges most associated with sentencing protesters to hang found them guilty of “waging war against god,” a charge that can merit the death penalty under Iran’s legal system, which is based on a strict interpretation of Islamic law.

Advocates say the government did not present credible evidence of a connection between the defendants and the bullets and guns allegedly used in the killings, or a consistent account of the central facts of the case. The defendants were reportedly denied access to a lawyer of their choosing — as is the norm in Iran’s Revolutionary Courts, which serve as a parallel legal system to protect the Islamic republic.

Soon after the trial, Kazemi called his mother from Isfahan’s Dastgerd prison and told her they were tortured and forced to confess, according to the family. “We were told to say these things in court all of it under torture. I did not have any gun or do anything,” Kazemi told his fiancee, according to a recording of the call obtained by HRANA, which The Washington Post has not verified independently. A judge upheld the ruling in early May.

On Monday, Gholamhossein Mohseni Ejehi, the head of Iran’s judiciary, said that his institution would use “the utmost decisiveness and speed of action” in cases of killed Iranian security forces, according to comments carried by state media outlets. He did not directly address the Isfahan case.

Before his arrest, Kazemi, 31, had a business making copper kitchenware, according to news reports. Mirhashemi, 36, is a karate champion and bodybuilder instructor. Yaqoubi, 38, worked at a real estate company and was the sole caretaker of his elderly parents, Thompson said.

More than 20,000 people were arrested and at least 500 people killed during the anti-government protest movement that swept Iran for months after the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in mid-September, in the custody of the country’s so-called morality police. Iranian authorities have released many protesters starting in February but have simultaneously stepped up enforcement of mandatory hijabs for women.

In tandem with the ongoing political repression, Iran has carried out this year a “frightening” spate of executions unrelated to the protest movement, mainly of men from minority communities charged with drug offenses, U.N. rights chief Volker Turk said in a recent statement. The country’s more than 200 executions this year form an “abominable record” amounting to about 10 people killed each week, in a country among those leading the world in executions.

Exact figures are likely higher yet impossible to determine: there is little transparency around charges, trials and the outcomes of these cases. Families of those executed or on death row are often under extreme government pressure to stay silent.

Last year, Iran executed at least 576 people, an increase of 83 percent from the previous year’s record of at least 314 people, according to the Amnesty International report.

The recent “alarming surge in executions” is part of a broader pattern of impunity that’s been ongoing for years, said Thompson. Individual cases often draw international attention for a period, she said. But executions continue “because of a complete lack of accountability.”

“In the meantime, people’s lives hang in the balance,” she said.

At the heart of Iran’s crackdown, a small group of judges sentences protesters to hang

The Washington Post By Miriam Berger

January 25, 2023 at 4:05 p.m. EST

Iran’s governmentis doubling down on repression to stamp out the months-long uprisingbent on its ouster. At the heart of these efforts: a small circle of judges connected to the country’s clerical leaders and security services, meting out long prison terms and death sentences to protest supporters.

There is little judicial transparency in Iran, where charge sheets and verdicts are often kept under wraps, so it is difficult to determine the true scale of arrests, sentencings and executions. But a picture of the trials and the judges presiding over them has emerged from a range of sources — including state media outlets, rights groups, activist telegram accounts and networks of lawyers in and outside of Iran.

In recent weeks, seven judges — Abulqasem Salavati, Mohammad Reza Amoozad, Hadi Mansoori, Musa Asef al-Hosseini, Ali Mazloum, Iman Afshari and Morteza Barati — appear to have issued between them at least 17 death sentences, some of which Iran’s high court has overturned on appeal. The names of judges issuing death sentences in other cases remain unconfirmed.

These trials, which rights groups say are part of a brutal campaign designed to crush the uprising, are “controlled by very few judges that collaborate a hundred percent with security agencies,” said Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the Centre for Human Rights in Iran, a New York-based advocacy group. “They are trusted and loyal and they are believed to follow orders that have already been made extrajudicially about what the sentences should be.”

The protests, in which women and youths have played a leading role, broke out mid-September following the death of Mahsa Amini, 22, in police custody after she allegedly violated the country’s conservative dress code for women. The demonstrations have since cascaded into a broad uprising driven by calls to end clerical rule. Security forces have killed more than 500 protesters and authorities have issued at least 22 death sentences and charged more than 100 people with crimes that could merit the death penalty, according to the activist news agency HRANA.

Detainees and their families are under heavy pressure to stay silent, making it impossible to tally the number of arrests and sentences, but HRANA estimates that there have been nearly 20,000 arrests, and some 700 have been sentenced.

At the center of many of the most serious trials is a clique of judges whose identities have become known to, and feared by, the public.

The United States has vowed to intensify sanctions on those involved in the deadly repression. The United States placed Salavati, nicknamed “the judge of death,” under sanctions in 2019 for overseeing “the Iranian regime’s miscarriage of justice in show trials.” Six other judges responsible for issuing death sentences are not under U.S. sanctions, which would entail tightened travel bans and frozen assets. In late December, the Biden administration added Iran’s general prosecutor, Mohammad Jafar Montazeri, to its blacklist for human rights abuses.

A spokesperson for the U.S. Treasury, speaking on the condition of anonymity under departmental protocol, said they could not offer comment on whether sanctions targeting these judges were or had been considered. Afshari, Mazloum and Amoozad were placed under sanctions by the United Kingdom on Dec. 9 for “prosecuting protesters with egregious sentences including the death penalty.”

A majority of protesters jailed are released on bail and pending trial. But an unknown number stand accused of national security-related crimes, such as alleged attacks on security forces, in a system stacked against them. Rather than facing trial in a criminal court, political prisoners are tried in the Revolutionary Court, a parallel judicial system set up after the 1979 revolution to protect Iran’s system of clerical rule.

These judges “strongly believe in and depend on the ruling Islamic establishment and for this reason have absolute or blind obedience,” Iranian lawyer Saeid Dehghan, who lives in Canada, said in an email. Dehghan fled Iran to escape persecution for trying to defend clients before some of these judges.

In the Revolutionary Court, defendants are typically denied access to their lawyer and cannot review the evidence against them, said Dehghan. They are frequently forced to make false or incriminating statements under torture or extreme duress, according to Ghaemi and other rights groups, while judges often rely on fabricated or misleading evidence to issue heavy sentences in speedy trials.

Members of Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and the intelligence wing of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, a security force with wide-ranging powers designed to defend the Islamic Republic, conduct interrogations. In the courtroom, interrogators typically guide sentencing rather than judges, said Dehghan.

Rulings are often “written by the legal department of the intelligence and security agencies,” he said.

Detainees or their lawyers do not generally receive official copies of the verdicts. Sometimes the presiding judge’s name is kept private “because they know how much their decisions increase public anger,” said Dehghan. He said colleagues involved in recent death penalty cases in the northern city of Sari shared verdicts with him, but the judge’s name had been deleted, “probably for security reasons.”

The judges of branches 15, 26, 28 and 29 of the Revolutionary Court in Tehran — Salavati, Afshari, Amoozad and Mazloum — have been among the most notorious forlong and harsh sentences amid the protests, said Shiva Nazarahari, a member of the Volunteer Committee to Follow Up on the Situation of Detainees, an activist group based outside Iran.

Salavati and Amoozad presided over the trial of the first participant in the ongoing protests to be executed, Mohsen Shekari, a 23-year-old barista from Tehran.

Salavati has sentenced at least three other protesters to death, including a 19-year-old whose mother said he suffered from bipolar disorder. Iran’s high court accepted appeals for the two other confirmed cases, though the defendants remain jailed. The outcomes of three other death penalty cases tried in his court remain unclear, according to news reports and a list by the detainees’ committee.

Amoozad has issued death sentences to Manouchehr Mehman-Navaz, 45, and writer and artist Mehdi Bahman, Dehghan said.

On Dec. 12, authorities hanged Majid Reza Rahnavard, a 23-year-old shopkeeper sentenced to death by Mansoori according to coverage of the trial by Mizan News Agency, which is affiliated with Iran’s judiciary. On Jan. 7, Tehran executed two protesters, Mohammad Mehdi Karami, 22, and Seyyed Mohammad Hosseini, 39, after they were found guilty by al-Hosseini.

Karami and Hosseini were among five people al-Hosseini sentenced to death in a mass trial, which included three minors, charged with killing a member of the IRGC volunteer police force, according to Mizan. The high court suspended the other three sentences on appeal.

Barati has sentenced three people to death by hanging, according to Dehghan and local media reports: Saeid Yaghoubi, Majid Kazemi and Saleh Mirhashemi, accused of killing security force members.

Both Mazloum and Afshari have each issued one death sentence, according to HRANA, though the high court has accepted repeals in each case, the Committee to Follow Up on the Situation of Detainees found.

Verdicts “don’t fit the crime, if one was even committed,” said Nazarahari. Instead, these judges “listen to orders from high or what interrogators say. They don’t issue their verdicts according to any law.”

Alarming Surge in Executions in Iran: At Least 45 Executions in Seven Days

Over the past week, at least 45 prisoners, including two women, have been executed in various Iranian prisons for drug-related crimes and murder, marking a growing trend of execution in the country. HRANA has compiled a statistical analysis of the details of the executions during this period.

According to HRANA, the news agency of Human Rights Activists, there has been a noticeable increase in the execution of prisoners in Iranian prisons over the past week.

Based on the reports compiled by HRANA, the death sentences were carried out in several prisons, including Rajai Shahr (Karaj), Ghezel Hesar (Karaj), Urmia, Ardabil, Dastgerd (Isfahan), Vakilabad (Mashhad), Neishabur, Torbat-e-Jam, Rasht, Yazd, Birjand, Qazvin, Minab, Bandar Abbas, Zahedan, Khorramabad, and Iranshahr.

Out of the 45 executed prisoners, 29 were convicted of drug-related charges, while at least 15 were executed for murder.
At least 19 death-row prisoners were also transferred to solitary confinement in Salmas, Urmia, Khorin, Ghezel Hesar (Karaj), Yazd, Bandar Abbas, Birjand, and Zahedan, which could be a prelude to their execution. HRANA is investigating their fate, and the statistics presented in this report could increase.

As of the time of writing, most of these executions have not been announced by official sources or media inside Iran.

The issuance and execution of death sentences violate the right to live and have been heavily criticized by international organizations, with Iran ranking first globally in execution rate per capita.

In 2022, the Department of Statistics and Publication of Human Rights Activists in Iran registered 457 reports on the execution of 565 people and death sentences for 92 people, six of whom were sentenced to be hanged in public. Of these 565 executions, two death sentences were carried out in public, and five were juvenile offenders who were under 18 years old at the time of committing the alleged crime.

At least 192 people, including 8 women, have been executed in Iran from January 1 to May 5. The majority of these executions were for drug-related offenses and murder. Moreover, 71 death sentences were issued, and 27 other sentences were confirmed by the Supreme Court.

The breakdown of charges for these executions is as follows: 122 individuals were executed for drug-related offenses, 59 for murder, 6 for undisclosed charges, 1 for adultery, 1 for ideological charges, 1 for corruption, 1 for Moharebeh (political security), and 1 for non-political Moharebeh.

Skylar Thompson, the head of Global Advocacy and Accountability of Human Rights Activists, stated that “the surging rate of executions in Iran illustrates an utter disregard for human life. Under no circumstance does the ongoing use of the death penalty, for drug-related offenses in particular, amount to what is permittable under international law. Iranian authorities have an absolute obligation to uphold international human rights standards and instead, there is ongoing impunity for grave violations of the right to life–and more. The international community must not delay in sounding the alarm, they should call for a stay of executions for those currently facing execution and a moratorium on the death penalty, at a minimum, for crimes not amounting to “most serious” under international law.”