• The Star Staff

In rare surge of online unity, Iranians call for halt to executions

By Farnaz Fassihi

Iranians from all walks of life — teachers, doctors, designers, cooks, actors, directors, artists, homemakers, bloggers — have taken to social media with a message for the government: Stop the executions.

The online campaign, which took place Tuesday and which analysts said was remarkable for its scope and the breadth of its support, was in response to the judiciary’s announcement earlier in the day that it had upheld the death sentences of three young men who joined anti-government protests in November.

Iran put 251 people to death last year, more than any country but China, according to Amnesty International. In recent weeks, many Iranians have been rattled by a series of executions based on murky charges, from drinking alcohol to political activism to allegedly spying for the CIA.

“I’m next, you’re next, we’re next,” read a meme that was widely shared online.

It was a rare moment of solidarity among Iranians of varying political views around a single issue. Human rights activists said it suggested that Iranians were seeking new ways to be heard, with the government having brutally crushed street protests and other forms of dissent.

By midday Tuesday, the most-tweeted hashtag within Iran was #DontExecute in Persian, according to Twitter. Iranians all over the world joined the campaign, and the hashtag trended globally, with nearly 4.5 million tweets.

“I’ve never seen a hashtag with this level of participation from Iranians everywhere,” said Amir Rashidi, a digital researcher with a focus on internet security. Past issues, including political prisoners and Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, had generated considerable social media engagement but not like what was seen Tuesday, he said.

The call to end executions also generated tens of thousands of posts on other platforms popular in Iran, like Instagram and Telegram.

NetBlocks, which tracks global internet usage, reported significant internet disruption within Iran on Tuesday night, as did individual Iranians. The government routinely disrupts or shuts off the internet and mobile services when faced with demonstrations or significant internal dissent.

The three condemned men, Amirhossein Moradi, 25, Saeed Tamjidi, 27, and Mohammad Rajabi, 27, were part of a nationwide uprising in November as people took to the streets to protest rising gasoline prices. Rights organizations say that the security forces killed at least 500 protesters and that 7,000 people were arrested.

The three were found guilty of “participation in vandalism and arson with the intent to confront and engage in war with the Islamic Republic of Iran.”

In an open letter, the men’s lawyers said their clients had been forced to confess under “aberrant conditions.” The Supreme Court turned down an appeal and upheld the death sentences Tuesday, the judiciary announced.

A broad range of Iranians joined the online campaign denouncing the sentences. “Every human life is precious. #DontExecute,” Mojgan Rezaei, a lifestyle blogger in Tehran, wrote on Instagram, where she has more than 200,000 followers.

“We are overwhelmed with grief, running out of time to mourn. #DontExecute,” tweeted a Tehran-based economist, Siamak Ghasemi.

Well-known figures followed, some of them with millions of followers: Mohsen Chavoshi, a pop singer; Azar Mahisefat, a grandmother and a food blogger; Taraneh Alidousti, an actress; Asghar Farhadi, a filmmaker who has won two Oscars. Hossein Mahini, a player for Iran’s beloved national soccer team, sent a tweet with the #DontExecute hashtag written three times, once for each of the men facing death.

Ordinary internet users who rarely weigh in on political issues shared photos of the three men. Sara, a homemaker with two young daughters who asked that her last name not be reported, posted a photo of three bleeding red roses and wrote: “Enough. Don’t execute life.”

Politicians took notice. Former Vice President Mohamad Ali Abtahi, a cleric, warned in a tweet that the government should not be stubborn in the face of such strong public opinion. A former member of Parliament, Parvaneh Salahshouri, tweeted a line of poetry about oppression with the #DontExecute hashtag.

“Nothing shakes and weakens the foundations of the government and provokes public retaliation like spilling the blood of innocent people,” Mostafa Tajzadeh, a prominent reformist politician, wrote on Twitter, also using the hashtag.

Iranians, including advocates for human rights, said the government was making an example of the three men to intimidate the public and pre-empt future uprisings, amid widespread discontent over the dismal economy and the authorities’ handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

Iran’s currency has been in a daily free fall. This week, rials were trading at 23,000 to the dollar; a month ago, the figure was 13,000. Prices for basic goods have been fluctuating drastically. And the pandemic continues to rage, with daily case numbers climbing and 25 provinces having been declared “red zones.”

“The society is boiling so they are increasing the number of executions,” said Roya Boroumand, executive director of the Washington-based Abdorrahman Boroumand Center, which lobbies for human rights in Iran. The message, she said, was “remember we can kill.”

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