Overview:

Iran's death penalty has recently been extended in a way that puts some 15,000 protesters at risk. The world needs to act, but carefully, and with full awareness of past transgressions in the region.

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Last week, 227 members of Iran’s 290-person parliament advocated for harsher retributive actions to be taken against protesters arrested in the nation-wide demonstrations after 22-year-old Mahsa Amini was brutally murdered by morality police in September. Prior to the parliament’s decision, the Islamic Revolution Court was already charging people connected to these protests with death penalty offences, such as “waging war against God” or “corruption on Earth”. But the expanded mandate has international groups alarmed, because its reach could affect far more of the 15,000 people so far arrested in relation to this youth-led uprising.

On November 14, courts issued a death sentence under the expanded parliamentary mandate. The unnamed individual was alleged to have set fire to a government building. 20 others are in immediate threat of similar verdicts, while another court began handing out 5-to-10 year prison sentences for people otherwise considered to be threats to national security and public order for their participation in this latest round of protests.

While most countries have lessened or eradicated the death penalty, Iran since the 1979 revolution, which installed Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and ushered in the current era of extreme state oppression, saw a massive uptick in its use. Amnesty International reported that, from January 1 to June 30 of this year, Iran killed at least 251 people after “grossly unfair trials”, as part of a longstanding pattern of systematic executions. In July, Iran also returned to its practice of public executions, which had been put on hold during the first two years of the COVID-19 pandemic.

At least 326 people, including 43 children, have so far died in these latest protests, which predominantly feature young people resisting a decades-old regime. Protests themselves are not atypical in Iran, which saw a wave of economically driven demonstrations in major urban centers from 2017 to 2021, all manifesting average citizens’ frustration with inflation, high unemployment, low wages, and general government corruption. But those protests tended to be localized phenomena. This year’s version is truly nation-wide (from big cities right down to small towns), led by women, and showing no signs of abating even as the government has escalated threats of brutal crackdowns.

Nojang Khatami, writing for the Boston Review, recently highlighted two key points for international watchers: that the revolution Iranian women are calling for is as much cultural as it is political, and that the West would be wise not to presume that Iranians are pursuing a fixed vision of change that will emulate Western structures. As he writes,

The concerted effort to expand the category of “the people” is not a call for regime change catalyzed by foreign governments or for the exportation of a particular brand of liberal democracy: it is an organic movement that continues to define its democratic ambitions through each act of resistance, each instance of imagining governance otherwise.

Nojang Khatami, “The Lifeblood of Iranian Democracy”, Boston Review, November 2

And this makes perfect sense for a region with a very complex history of rights battles, and of movement into and out of democratic structures.

In 1936, women in Iran underwent a forced unveiling under Reza Shah, who banned all Islamic veils. Voting rights only arrived in 1963, long after many laws had been made about women without their consent. Ten years prior, the CIA and British Secret Intelligence Service had conspired to depose a democratically elected prime minister, Mohammad Mosaddegh, to stop him from nationalizing Iranian oil and cutting Britain off from a key economic driver.

But if the history of Iranian oppression is complex, parliamentarians in early November were by no means evasive about their intentions when they signed a letter advocating for harsher consequences for protesters. Rather, they maintained that this course of action “would serve as a good lesson in the shortest possible time”.

International groups, including the UN, have been calling for Iran not to issue the death penalty to protesters long before this most recent state action. If this latest escalation by Iran’s parliament offers the international community a chance to put meaningful pressure on the Iranian government to listen to its people, and defer to calls for change, all the better.

But at a distance? World watchers also have to remember that Iranian protesters are not looking for outsiders to make decisions for them. They’re asking for protection from state oppression to decide their own future. Whatever we can do to help them achieve this aim will require more maturity than the international community has often manifested before.


CORRECTION: Original language for this article introduced the 227 parliamentarians as having “voted to allow the death penalty”, as per initial reports. It has since emerged that the letter signed by 227 parliamentarians did not have the full force of a vote, though it did offer an expanded mandate to the judicial arm of Iranian government. As noted elsewhere in this piece, Iranian legal language can be fairly florid, which adds an interpretive challenge when trying to pin down exactly what has been sanctioned by whom. The key point, that Iran has been using the death penalty all year, and even on this group of protesters prior to the latest parliamentary action, remains. We have to wait and see how the courts, which already favor hasty trials and an absence of due process, will continue to act on this broader parliamentary sanction.

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GLOBAL HUMANIST SHOPTALK M L Clark is a Canadian writer by birth, now based in Medellín, Colombia, who publishes speculative fiction and humanist essays with a focus on imagining a more just world.