Iran takes a hard line against protests with swift second execution

In the early hours of Monday, protester Majidreza Rahnavard was publicly hanged in the religious city of Mashhad, a clear signal of Iran’s intent to crack down on the demonstrations that have swept the country in recent months.

Rahnavard, the second protester to be executed since demonstrations began in mid-September, was sentenced to death less than a month after his arrest for the killing of two security officers, unusually swift retribution for the normally slow Iranian judicial system.

“I was screaming at home thinking that my children could be next,” said Leila, a 43-year-old cleaner who lives in the city of Karaj, west of the capital Tehran, of the moment she heard of the hangings. “In our village, a killer’s sentence was suspended for eight years until the victim’s family pardoned him. How can these young men be hanged so quickly?”

The country has been in the grip of protests since the death of Mahsa Amini, a young Kurdish woman, in police custody for her alleged failure to properly observe the Islamic dress code.

At least 60 members of the security forces have been killed during the protests, according to the Javan daily newspaper affiliated to Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. Official figures put the number of deaths, including security personnel, at around 200. But Amnesty International says more than 300 protesters have been killed including 44 children.

At least 20 other protesters face execution, according to Amnesty. Other protesters in prison awaiting trial on serious charges — which could result in a death sentence — are reported to include two rappers, a medical doctor, an actor and a footballer. In Iran, people can be executed if found guilty of murder or drug trafficking. Thousands of anti-regime political activists were hanged in the late 1980s, but it is rare for street protesters to be hanged.

A regime insider close to hardline forces said more hangings were likely. “We have to resolve this crisis at home,” he said. “This [movement] should not expand. Some protesters may be shown the hell but not pushed into the hell [won’t be hanged]. But those who have killed security forces will definitely be executed.”

A Twitter post about the execution of Majidreza Rahnavard, announced by Iranian authorities © AFP via Getty Images

With protesters calling for the overthrow of the Islamic republic and its replacement with a modern secular state, Tehran has made few concessions since the protests began. It has not changed the law governing the wearing of hijab, although in practice it has relaxed regulations and many women in Tehran no longer wear headscarves.

The willingness to execute two protesters underlines the fact that hardliners are in full control of the Iranian state. Abbas Abdi, a reformist analyst, said: “The official message is that of hanging and elimination and that’s it.”

Iran’s judiciary chief Gholam-Hossein Mohseni-Ejei said “it is injustice to have mercy on those who have created insecurity for citizens with an effective role in the unrest” and those who “threatened businesses and truck drivers”.

The first to be hanged was Mohsen Shekari, a 23-year-old protester, found guilty of blocking a street in Tehran and stabbing a security official. He was convicted of moharebeh, or waging war against God. Both he and Rahnavard made “confessions” in state media.

A video grab, reportedly showing a protester placing an object at the entrance of the Khomeini Seminary in Iran's Bushehr city, before fleeing as it erupts in flames
A video grab, reportedly showing a protester placing an object at the entrance of the Khomeini Seminary in Iran’s Bushehr city, before fleeing as it erupts in flames © UGC/AFP via Getty Images

Some Iranian lawyers and clerics have questioned the speed at which the judiciary has handed down their verdicts. Others question the interpretation of the law.

Ayatollah Morteza Moqtadai, a former head of the State Supreme Court, said that the death penalty should only apply in moharebeh cases if a person was killed.

Iranians have campaigned on social media against the executions but few have taken to the streets. Some European politicians have campaigned on behalf of imprisoned dissidents such as Toomaj Salehi, a rapper, and Mohammad Mehdi Karami, a martial arts national champion, to help prevent their execution. Karami has been convicted of killing a security official.

Robabeh, a 50-year-old religious woman whose family is in the military, said the executions had added to social pressure on families like hers.

“It’s the divine law which says if you kill someone you are sentenced to death. This doesn’t mean we are happy to see these executions. We are also crying for the youth losing their lives but what is the alternative?” she said. “I’m shaking everyday when my children and husband go out fearing that they may be killed by the opposition. . . Is that fair to us?”

The authorities’ strategy may yet backfire. Ali, a 40-year-old engineer who did not want his real name and current occupation published, fears more executions are on the way.

“The only hope I have is when I see authorities are making more miscalculations and mistakes like these executions which may eventually help make that big change.”

For Leila, the Islamic republic’s failure to provide an economic future for young people is at fault. “My son [18] until some months ago used to ask ‘am I going to find a job?’ but now he asks ‘am I going to survive?’ This is what is killing me,” she said.

“It is like a war front when one is injured and transferred back for treatment but comes back to the frontline. Protests will escalate again,” said Leila, who gave her sons her 18 gold bangles, so they could sell them if she was arrested or killed during demonstrations. “The Islamic republic is making even more enemies with these executions without any doubt.”

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