As political unrest continues to spread throughout the Middle East, two of Iran’s top opposition leaders have accused the Islamist regime of rapidly increasing the number of executions in a deliberate effort to intimidate the country’s reform movement.
Specifically, the increase in executions is seen as a direct attempt by the Iranian government to stifle opposition by those who feel empowered by the ongoing upheaval in Egypt and Tunisia.
The accusations were levied by Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karrubi, both former Iranian presidential candidates. In a statement released on Iran’s reformist website Tagheer, the men wrote that the Iranian government was increasing executions in order to “intimidate the nation and further isolate Iran on the international stage.”
Both men lost the June 2009 presidential election to incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in a vote fraught with allegations of fraud and vote rigging. The subsequent public outcry spawned a wave of open protests against the Islamist regime, dubbed the Green Movement.
Mousavi and Karrubi’s charges come at the same time the United Nations released a report also condemning the Iranian regime’s record number of executions. The report cited the Iranian government’s execution of 67 people in January 2011, putting it on pace to quickly eclipse the 179 executions that took place in 2010.
However, since the Iranian government does not release information on the number of death sentences carried out, the UN figures were gleaned from Iranian press reports. As such, some have surmised that the number is far too low. The International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran has placed the number of executions in January 2011 at 97. Mousavi and Karrubi have placed the overall number of executions in 2010 at more than 300.
In addition to the high number of executions, the UN and opposition leaders fear that those being killed are not just criminals, but dissidents who have participated in the anti-government protests. According to UN spokesperson, Navi Pillay, “Dissent is not a crime. It is absolutely unacceptable for individuals to be imprisoned for association with opposition groups, let alone be executed for their political views or affiliations.”
Compounding the issue is the belief that those being executed have also not been given fair or complete trials. According to Aaron Rhodes, a spokesperson for International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, “The issue is not whether crimes occur in Iran, but whether death sentences are based on real trials, with real evidence, and real cases presented by lawyers.”
For its part, the Iranian government has been adamant that those arrested and executed were so dealt with due to their criminal activities, mostly connected to charges of drug smuggling. Furthermore, the government claims that every legal option available for those defendants had been exhausted.
Despite those claims, Iran’s actions led Pillay to say, “I am very dismayed that instead of heeding our calls, the Iranian authorities appear to have stepped up the use of the death penalty.” However, for those who have been on the receiving end of Iranian beatings during the Green Movement, the allegations come as little shock.
Those anti-government protests, which had died down by February 2010 after brutal violent crackdowns by Iranian security forces, were followed by purges of opposition supporters in universities, government offices and media outlets. Since early 2010 the regime has prosecuted over 100 dissidents and political figures, placing most of them on televised mass trials.
The Islamist regime has also targeted the small group of defense lawyers which has defended the dissidents. Since 2010, over 10 lawyers have been arrested and sentenced to long prison terms. The most recent convictions were Iranian attorney Khalil Bahramian, who was sentenced to 18 years in prison, and Nasrin Sotoudeh, who was sentenced to 11 years.
Still, some observers suspect that the events in Tunisia and Egypt are linked to the government increase in public executions and persecution. They argue the Iranian regime is encouraged by the prospect of the overthrow of secular, pro-Western governments, and as proof point to the government’s ardent and public championing of the revolts.
These thoughts were best echoed by the speaker of the Iranian parliament, Ali Larijani, who told the Fars news agency, “The time has [been] reached to overcome puppet autocratic regimes by relying on the Islamic teachings.” Adding to the chorus was a top Iranian cleric, Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami, quoted as saying, “An Islamic Middle East is being created based on Islam, religion, and democracy with prevailing religious principles.”
While there is a disturbing irony in the Iranian government backing a process which it crushed back in 2009, it is a fact not lost on Mousavi. On his website, he wrote about the Egyptian government’s confrontations and clashes with protesters: “We can identify a similar pattern.”
For its part, Iran’s government opposition and its leadership have also been vocal cheerleaders for the uprisings, which they claim are a natural extension of their own democratic efforts and call a sign of “Arab maturity.”
To them, the Green Movement was the first democratization movement that helped launch the Tunisian riots and then the subsequent Egyptian uprising. While some may dismiss the fact there is no correlation, arguing that Iran’s anti-government protests were a Persian Shiite movement and not a Sunni Arab one, others disagree.
In fact, Tunisian activists have been open about borrowing tactics used by Iranians in the 2009 Green Movement in their battle against the regime of Zine El Abdine Ben Ali. Specifically, they cite using social technologies, like Facebook and Twitter, as a means of organizing.
So now, as autocratic regimes peppered throughout the region begin to crumble, Iranian opposition leaders pine to complete the job they started. As Mousavi has confidently said, “No power can outrun the people’s will and demands. We believe that if election protesters are allowed to rally in Iran, people will express themselves.”
Despite its public bravado, Iran’s Islamist leaders are fearful what form that expression will take. While they may hope that Iran remains immune to the forces of change currently sweeping the region, they are busily hedging their bets. As Iranians are coming to learn, an overworked hangman is a good indicator of those efforts.
Frank Crimi is a writer living in San Diego, California. You can read more of Frank’s work at his blog, www.politicallyunbalanced.com.
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