Concerns about increased use of death penalty and judicial harassment to crack down on civic space

Peaceful Assembly

A number of human rights organisations have recently raised their concerns about the increasing use of the death penalty as a weapon of repression against protesters.

On 11th August 2020, Human Rights Watch reported the execution of Mostafa Salehi, a protester accused of killing a soldier during protests which took place from December 2017 to January 2018 in Isfahan, Iran. Five other protesters who were arrested for allegedly destroying public property in Isfahan during the protests are also currently on death row, despite what Human Rights Watch described as “serious due process flaws in their judicial proceedings.” Human Rights Watch lamented the lack of due process and investigations into allegations of authorities’ excessive use of force when sentencing and executing protesters.

Since late June 2020, Iranian courts have reportedly issued or upheld at least four execution sentences in connection with ongoing protests in Iran against the deterioration of the economy and the prevalence of government corruption. In a review of the verdicts against five other protesters on death row in Isfahan, Human Rights Watch noticed a tendency for such trials to be compromised by due process violations and for convictions, including the application of the death penalty, to be based on vaguely defined national security charges such as “corruption on earth”, “armed rebellion” and “enmity against God.”

Amnesty International has also raised concerns about the “chilling rise in the use of the death penalty by Iran’s authorities apparently to intensify fear and deter popular protests over worsening political and economic crises engulfing the country.” Amnesty International reported that on 13th July 2020, the spokesperson for the judiciary announced that the death sentences of Amirhossein Moradi, Mohammad Rajabi and Saeed Tamjidi, which were imposed in connection with the protests of November 2019 in Tehran, had been upheld by the Supreme Court. Furthermore, they reportedly underwent grossly unfair trials which were founded on “confessions” which were alleged to have been extracted through the use of torture and ill-treatment.


Additionally, the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) has identified a further emerging trend in Iran’s crackdown against peaceful protesters and those who exercise their right to freedom of expression, namely, the filing of additional charges against women human rights defenders already serving lengthy prison sentences in retaliation for their peaceful human rights activities.

“Freedom of expression and assembly in pursuit of gender equality are often regarded as acts against “national security,” “propaganda against the state,” “encouraging and providing for moral corruption and prostitution” and “insulting the sacred.”- GC4HR

Narges Mohammadi, a journalist and human rights defender who acts as spokeswoman for the Centre for Human Rights Defenders in Iran, was sentenced to a combined 16-year prison sentence in 2015. She received 10 years in prison for establishing the Step by Step to Stop Death Penalty group (also known as LEGAM), as well as five years for “gathering and colluding with intent to harm national security,” and one year for “spreading propaganda against the system”, as documented on the Monitor. In what has been described as a “ludicrous move” by GCHR, Mohammadi is facing new charges, including “collusion against the regime,” “propaganda against the regime” and the crime of “insult”, as revealed in an open letter recently sent by her bother to the Iranian authorities. Mehdi Mohammadi, exiled in Norway, explained in his letter that his sister had serious health problems but “was not allowed out of prison to see a doctor.” Furthermore, in June 2020, imprisoned human rights defender Atena Daemi who is serving a seven-year sentence at Evin Prison, was charged with “disturbing order” after being accused of chanting anti-government slogans on the anniversary of Iran’s 1979 revolution. Daemi was sentenced to five years in prison in 2016 and in September 2019 a further two years and one month were added to her sentence for “insulting” and “disseminating anti-government propaganda” after she wrote an open letter from prison criticising the execution of political prisoners. According to Daemi’s family, the new charges meant she would no longer be eligible for furlough on 4th July 2020, neither could she be freed under the current furloughs being offered in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

On 1st June 2020, women’s rights defender Saba Kord Afshari was sentenced to 15 years in prison, thereby overturning her previous acquittal by the appeals court which was issued on 17th March 2020. She was convicted of “promoting corruption and prostitution through appearing without a headscarf in public,” for her role in the White Wednesday protest movement against mandatory veiling. Kord Afshari is already serving a nine-year sentence in Evin Prison. As a consequence, she is also ineligible for furlough during the pandemic.

Imprisoned human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh has been on hunger strike in Evin Prison since 11th August to demand the release of prisoners of opinion, who are at risk of contracting the COVID-19 virus. Mehraveh Khandan, Sotoudeh’s 20-year-old daughter, was arrested at her home in Tehran on 17th August 2020 and taken into custody, reportedly to try to force her mother to end her hunger strike, according to the Centre for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI).

In April 2020, United Nations human rights experts called on Iran to expand its temporary release of thousands of detainees to include prisoners of conscience and dual and foreign nationals who are still behind bars, despite the serious risk of being infected with COVID-19.