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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Iran turns to public executions, enraging an already protesting public

This image was taken from a video reportedly showing protesters marching in Zahedan, southeastern Iran, on Friday.

By Farnaz Fassihi

After months of protests in Iran that have only escalated as the government’s crackdown has turned deadlier, officials have begun publicly executing protesters, including a 23-year-old man who was hanged Monday from a construction crane, bringing a new wave of outrage from an Iranian public calling for the end of the country’s theocratic regime.

The hangings — the first was Thursday at a prison near Tehran, the second Monday in the northwestern city of Mashhad — have brought intense condemnation from the public and human rights groups, and even criticism from some senior figures within Iran’s clerical establishment who questioned the religious validity of the death sentences.

Since the protests began in September, Iran’s security forces have killed hundreds of Iranians, in a harsh response characterized by mass arrests and beatings, military assaults and the killing of dozens of teenagers and children. Human rights groups say at least 450 protesters have died, and the United Nations says 14,000 have been arrested.

Now, the public executions are widely being taken as a last-ditch effort by the government to suppress an uprising that has become the most profound and widespread since the 1979 revolution that brought the clerics to power. In addition to street protests in dozens of cities several times a week, a general-strike campaign has picked up momentum across the country, further threatening a regime already on shaky economic ground.

On Monday, after the dawn call to prayer, Majid Reza Rahnavard, 23, was hanged in public in the northwestern city of Mashhad. Photos by state media showed a crowd of onlookers gazing at his body hanging from a crane with a sack covering his head. The time from his arrest to execution, on charges of killing two plainclothes Basij militia, spanned less than a month. He worked at a fruit shop.

Four days earlier, Mohsen Shekari, a 23-year-old who worked at a coffee shop in Tehran, was executed at a prison 20 miles from the capital on allegations that he blocked the road and stabbed a member of the Basij militia during protests in Tehran.

Rights groups say the trials of the two men resembled “lynching committees” with no judicial due process. The men were tried behind closed doors with lawyers assigned by the government who barely defended them and without members of their families present, advocates say, adding that prosecutors made use of confessions coerced while the men were in detention.

The public hangings have shaken Iran and sparked widespread fury that risks further fueling the unrest instead of containing it. Both executions spawned immediate and large street protests in the two men’s home neighborhoods. Demonstrators marched and chanted “with each person killed a thousand will rise up,” and “those who are sitting, you will be next,” according to videos posted on social media.

At least 11 other protesters, men mostly in their early 20s, have been sentenced to death, according to Amnesty International.

Three others have been convicted of charges that could carry the death penalty but have not yet been sentenced, and six other men are awaiting trial on potential capital offenses.

“These trials and executions are designed to repress the protests and create a climate of fear and intimidation in the society,” said Raha Bahreini, a human rights lawyer and Iran researcher for Amnesty International. “The Iranian authorities show they are adamant about continuing their violent campaign of mass killings both on the streets and behind prison bars.”

Women and young people have been at the forefront of the protest movement since its start in September, after the death of Mahsa Amini, 22, in the custody of the country’s morality police. That police force is in charge of enforcing the country’s strict clothing restrictions on women, which have been seen as central to the clerical regime’s identity.

In a sign of growing urgency by the Iranian authorities, officials said this month that the morality police force was being abolished, a step widely derided by protesters and human rights groups as propaganda that would do little to placate demonstrators. But at the same time, the security forces have not held back on arrests or violence to dispel protests, and the executions are adding to a sense that the authorities will stop at nothing to crush the uprisings.

Some Iranians describe a growing climate of fear. Mina, a 26-year-old resident of Tehran, said her parents had cried after the first execution and asked her to stop going to demonstrations at night in the neighborhood. She was undecided but admitted she and her friends were shaken after watching videos of Shekari’s mother screaming his name and crying when she heard the news of his execution.

Videos of grandmothers of two of the young men facing imminent execution have gone viral. In the videos the grandmothers wail and plead with judicial officials to spare the lives of their grandsons, saying they made a mistake and should be forgiven.

The father of another protester on death row — Mehdi Karami, a 20-year-old karate champion — told the newspaper Etemad on Monday that the lawyer assigned to his son’s case by the government won’t answer family members’ calls and that they do not know the address for his law practice.

“Every night I fear they will tell me the news of my child’s execution,” Etemad quoted the father, Mashallah Karami, as saying. Mashallah Karami described himself as a peddler who sells napkins and tissues on the streets and has another son who is disabled. “I beg you in God’s name, don’t execute my child! Give him a life sentence instead.”

The executions have even appeared to shake parts of the country’s clerical establishment. A prominent collective of scholars and senior clerics from the theological schools in the city of Qom issued a statement condemning the executions on charges that the two hanged men were “moharebe,” enemies of God. The clerics criticized the hasty pace of the trials and said the charges and punishment were not proportional to the crimes committed, and called on the judiciary to halt further executions.

The head of the clerical judiciary, Gholam-Hossein Mohseni-Eje’i, said Monday that it was well within the authority of the judges to decide what constitutes being an enemy of God. And the deputy Interior minister, Majid Mirahmadi, was quoted by Iranian news outlets Saturday as saying the media and international outrage around executing protesters would have no effect on the decisions of judiciary officials.

But the executions have caused deep anxiety among the public and the Iranian diaspora. And some Iranian news outlets have seized on the case of a Basij plainclothes militia member, Mohamadreza Ghanbartalab, pleading to reverse the death sentence of a protester charged with assaulting him. After testifying against the accused assailant, Ghanbartalab withdrew his judicial complaint and forgave the defendant, Mahan Sadrat, Iranian media have reported.

In a social media account identified by state media as authentic, Ghanbartalab has pleaded repeatedly to spare the life of Sadrat, 20. “I urgently beg you not to execute Mahan,” one post read. Sadrat had been scheduled for execution Sunday, but media outlets say it was suspended just hours beforehand.

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