In what human rights groups warn is just the start of a violent campaign of political repression, the Islamic Republic of Iran has begun executing protesters in the ongoing civil unrest following the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini while in custody of the government’s morality police.

On December 8, 2022, the Iranian regime hanged 23-year-old Mohsen Shekari (pictured, left), after a secret trial in Iran’s Revolutionary Court. Four days later, in defiance of international condemnation of Shekari’s execution, Iran publicly hanged 23-year-old Majidreza Rahnavard (pictured, right) in the Shiite holy city of Mashhad. Iranian authorities left Rahnavard’s bound body on public display, hanging by his neck on a construction crane.

Iranian authorities have confirmed that another 12 individuals linked to the protests have been sentenced to death, while human rights groups have identified another 12 who have been indicted on charges carrying the death penalty. The charges violate core principles of international human rights law that limit the death penalty to the “most serious crimes,” and prohibit it for non-lethal offenses.

Both Rahnavard and Shekari were convicted of “moharabeh,” or “waging war against God,” and after expedited legal proceedings, characterized by human rights groups as “sham trials,” were sentenced to death. Human rights advocates have highlighted the unlawfulness of the trials, lack of legal representation, and the prevalence of “coerced confessions” stemming from torture.

Mahmood Amiry-Moghaddam, Director of Oslo-based Iran Human Rights, said that mere condemnation of Iran’s actions was not enough. “[U]nless the political cost of the executions is increased significantly, we will be facing mass executions,” he said. With thousands of protestors detained by the Iranian government and hundreds more killed during the protests, Amiry-Moghaddam warned of “a serious risk” that the government would repeat its “grave human rights crime” in the 1980s when Iranian authorities executed an estimated 2,800-5,000 protesters and political opponents in the summer of 1988.

Diana Eltahawy, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa, pressed the “international community to go beyond expressions of outrage and condemnation and take all necessary measures to pursue accountability for all officials … involved in crimes under international law and other grave violations of human rights, including the right to life. This should include exercising universal jurisdiction to investigate all those suspected of such crimes and issuing arrest warrants when there is sufficient evidence.”

In an historic trial in July 2022, Sweden exercised universal jurisdiction to prosecute a former Iranian official, Hamid Noury, for his involvement in the 1988 massacres. Noury was convicted of war crimes and murder.

According to Mizan news, the online news agency of the Iranian judiciary, Shekari was arrested for allegedly blocking a street in Teheran and assaulting a member of the Basij militia, a pro-goverment paramilitary volunteer militia, with a knife. Shekari’s execution came at the end of a week marked by a nationwide labor strike during which businesses, shops, and bazaars in more than 50 cities closed in support of demonstrators. Just three days before Shekari’s execution, chief justice Gholamhossein Mohseni-Ejei attributed these closures to threats and fear from protesters and issued a renewed call for speedy trials and sentencing,

Mizan alleged that Rahnavard had stabbed two members of the Basij militia to death. 23 days after his arrest, and without notifying his family, the state publicly hanged him using a crane. Mizan published graphic images of the scene depicting “Rahnavard hanging from the crane, his hands and feet bound, a black bag over his head” with a banner in the backdrop “bearing a Quranic verse: ‘“Indeed the requital of those who wage war against Allah and His Apostle, and try to cause corruption on the earth, is that they shall be slain or crucified, or shall have their hands and feet cut off from opposite sides, or be banished from the land.”’

The executions exposed the continuing deep divisions between the fundamentalist Shiite clerics at the center of the Iranian regime and religious authorities for Iran’s minority Sunni population. While hardline Shiite cleric Ahmad Khatami praised Shekari’s execution, Molavi Abdolhamid, the leading Sunni cleric for Iran’s Baluch population and an outspoken critic of authorities’ treatment of protestors, said the execution violated Quranic law. Under the Quran, Abdolhamid said, one who has not killed another cannot be put to death. Abdolhamid urged Iranian authorities to “listen to these protestors” to find a middle ground. “Beating, killing, and executing this nation is not right. This protest will not be quelled by killing people,” he said.

Prior to Shekari’s execution, the U.N. Human Rights Council adopted a resolution establishing an independent fact-finding mission to “thoroughly and independently investigate alleged human rights violations in Iran related to the protests that began on 16 September 2022.” On December 2, about a week before Shekari’s execution, the UN Secretary-General António Guterres spoke with Iranian Minister of Foreign Affairs Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, stressing “the need to use restraint when dealing with demonstrations in Iran.”

The executions drew immediate and widespread international condemnation. United Nations human rights experts condemned Shekari’s execution, called on Iran to release those imprisoned for their involvement in peaceful protests, and urged “Iran to establish a moratorium on executions with a view to abolishing the death penalty.” U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said in a tweet that he was “appalled” by Shekari’s execution and called on Iran to “end this brutal crackdown.”

The governments of the United Kingdom, France, and Germany also issued statements of condemnation. The British Foreign Ministry said it was “outraged” by Shekari’s execution. “The execution of Mohsen Shekari by the Iranian regime is abhorrent,” Foreign Secretary James Cleverly said. “We have made our views clear to the Iranian authorities — Iran must immediately halt executions and end the violence against its own people.”

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock tweeted after Shekari’s execution that the “the Iranian regime’s contempt for humanity is limitless.” The French Foreign Ministry issued a statement “utterly condemn[ing]” Rahnavard’s public execution and “the many other serious, unacceptable violations of fundamental rights and freedoms committed by the Iranian authorities. … Demonstrators must not be executed in response to the current protests in Iran,” the statement said. “France calls on the Iranian authorities to halt these executions and to listen to the legitimate aspirations of the Iranian people.”

Executions have surged in Iran in 2022 as the government has attempted to quell growing public discontent. Iran Human Rights reported in July that Iran had carried out at least 251 executions in the first half of 2022, more than double the total in the same period a year before. IHR raised concerns that the executions were being used as a political tool to intimidate anti-government protesters, and that ethnic minorities were being disproportionately targeted for execution.


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