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Iran: Death Penalty for Protest-Related Charges

Vague Charges; Allegations of Abuse and Torture

Iranian protesters gather around a burning car during a demonstration against an increase in gasoline prices in the capital Tehran, on November 16, 2019.  © AFP/Getty Images

(Beirut) – Iranian courts have reportedly issued or upheld at least four execution sentences since late June 2020 in connection to repeated protests against the deterioration of economic conditions and government corruption over the past two years, Human Rights Watch said today.

These sentences have been issued on vaguely defined national security charges, and defendants have had restricted access to lawyers and alleged that the authorities tortured or abused them to produce coerced confessions. Iranian authorities should immediately repeal the death sentences.

“Iran’s version of ‘accountability’ is apparently sentencing people involved in protests in unfair trials rather than investigating the overwhelming evidence of security forces’ excessive use of force and the death of hundreds of protestors who were shot dead by bullets,” said Tara Sepehri Far, Iran researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The judiciary should immediately repeal the recent death sentences and guarantee a fair trial to those who are facing allegations of recognizable crimes.”

On June 24, the Human Rights Activists News Agency (Hrana) reported that Iran’s Supreme Court had upheld the death sentences against Amirhossein Moradi, Saeed Tamjidi, and Mohammad Rajabi, three young men who were arrested after participating in the November 2019 protests, on charges of “taking part in destruction and burning, aimed at countering the Islamic Republic of Iran.” A day later, the Young Journalist Club news agency reported that an informed source denied that the Supreme Court upheld the sentences.

However, on July 10, Mostafa Nili, a member of the legal team chosen by the family, tweeted that the Supreme Court has upheld the death sentences. Earlier, Nili, along with Babak Paknia and Hossein Taj, other lawyers chosen by the families of those sentenced, reported on their social media accounts that authorities had denied their requests to read the indictment and charge sheets and submit a defense on behalf of their clients.

The authorities arrested Moradi on November 19, after he participated in the protests earlier in Tehran. Authorities in Tehran’s security police and Evin prison severely beat Moradi, who suffers from psoriasis, an autoimmune disease that causes chronic skin irritation and can be exacerbated by stress, a source who preferred to remain anonymous told Human Rights Watch on July 5. Moradi was hospitalized due to his health condition between March 15 and May 16.

Authorities arrested Tamjidi and Rajabi on December 28 and beat both of them in detention as well, the source said.

The Hrana news agency reported that the three defendants appeared in branch 15 of Tehran’s revolutionary court on January 24 and 25, along with two women, Mojhgan Eskandari, and Shima R. The court subsequently sentenced Moradi, Tamjidi, and Rajabi to death on the charge of “taking part in destruction and burning, aimed at countering the Islamic Republic of Iran.”

The source said that the court also convicted Moradi of participation in an armed robbery, linked to allegations that Moradi attempted to take a camera from security forces during the protests. Another source who preferred to remain anonymous said that the trial judge disregarded the defendants’ statements that they were tortured and coerced to make confessions.

In a separate case, on June 30, Gholamhossein Esmaili, the judiciary spokesperson, said that branch 15 of Tehran’s revolutionary court sentenced Rouholah Zam, a journalist and the administrator of popular Telegram Channel Amadnews, to death for “sowing corruption on earth.” Zam faced 17 charges, including establishing Amadnews to disrupt national security, spying for French and Israeli intelligence authorities, and assembly and collusion to act against national security.

On October 19, the Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps Intelligence Organization issued a statement saying that it had arrested Zam, a political activist, who until then had been living in exile in Paris. The statement did not specify where he was arrested, but Zam’s family has said that he was on his way to Iraq at the time.

Amadnews became one of the most popular sources of information for Iranians during the widespread protests that took place in December 2017 and January 2018. During that time, Pavel Durov, the CEO of Telegram, a popular messaging application, announced that Telegram had suspended the Amadnews channel for allegedly instructing subscribers to use Molotov cocktails against the police.

On July 1, Mohammadali Zam, a former government official and father of Rouholah, published a photo of his letter to the head of Iran’s judiciary, in which he said that the public defender in his son’s case was not allowed to meet with his client in private. He said that his son had not had any communication with his wife and daughter, who live in France, or his parents in Iran, over the past nine months.

On June 27, the head of the judiciary in Isfahan province also said during the Friday prayers that eight people arrested during the protests in December 2017, January 2018, and November 2019 have been sentenced on the charge of “sowing corruption on earth,” without specifying a sentence. “Sowing corruption on earth” is a vaguely defined national security charge that can carry the death penalty.

Security forces have responded to widespread protests over the past three years with excessive use of force and mass arrests of protesters. They used excessive and unlawful lethal force in confronting large-scale protests that began on November 15, 2019. According to Amnesty International, at least 304 people were killed during the protests.

On November 26, Interior Minister Adbolreza Rahmani Fazli said on state television that 731 banks and 140 public places were vandalized by “rioters.”

On June 1, Mojtaba Zonoor, the head of Iran’s parliamentary national security committee, said that 230 people had been killed during the protests. He claimed 7 percent of those who were killed died in direct confrontation with law enforcement and 16 percent in attacks against military places, and that the cause of death for 26 percent is still unknown. The authorities have not published any detailed investigation or held anyone accountable for alleged abuses.

According to Gholamhossein Mohseni Ejei, the former spokesperson for the judiciary, 25 people were also killed during the protests in December 2017 and January 2018.

Human Rights Watch opposes the death penalty in all circumstances because it is inherently cruel and irreversible.

Under international human rights law, everyone has the right to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly as provided under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Iran is a party.

International law guarantees anyone accused of a crime access to a lawyer at all stages of criminal proceedings, including during the investigation, the pretrial proceedings, and during the trial itself. Under Article 1 of the UN basic principles on the role of a lawyer, “All persons are entitled to call upon the assistance of a lawyer of their choice to protect and establish their rights and to defend them in all stages of criminal proceedings.”

Under the UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials, law enforcement officers may use force only when strictly necessary and to the extent required to achieve a legitimate policing objective. When using force, law enforcement officers should minimize damage and injury and respect and preserve human life. The deliberate use of lethal force is permissible only when it is strictly necessary to protect life.

“Executing people who took their frustrations over corrupt and unaccountable government officials to the street only adds insult to injury for those being crushed by the deteriorating economic situation,” Sepehri Far said. “Fair trial and due process are essential for anyone accused of a crime, but in cases that carry the death penalty, their lack can lead to grave and irreversible injustice.”

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