In November, an Islamic Revolutionary Court in Iran sentenced a protester to death in a judicial proceeding that raises serious concerns regarding the response of the Iranian government to civil unrest. The protester, who was arrested while participating in demonstrations against the Iranian state and was charged with property destruction and “enmity against God,” is one of several dozen people currently facing execution for offenses related to ongoing protests in Tehran and throughout the country.
The unrest erupted in September, when 22-year-old Mahsa Amini died while in the custody of the Iranian morality police. Amini was detained for failing to properly wear a hijab in public; she was taken to a nearby police station, where Iranian officials insist she perished after experiencing sudden heart arrhythmia due to an underlying cardiovascular disease. But Amini’s family denied that she had any such pre-existing condition and several witnesses have contradicted the official story, claiming that Amini was violently beaten in the back of a police van. After Iranian authorities stuck to their story and allegedly refused to release CCTV footage from inside the vehicle, thousands of Iranians took to the streets to demand answers and accountability.
Now, hundreds more people have found themselves in the line of fire. According to the Human Rights Activist News Agency, as many as 341 demonstrators have already been killed by Iranian military forces. This number includes 43 child fatalities. Meanwhile, almost 16,000 people have been apprehended for their involvement in public protests. These figures are likely to grow.
It was not initially clear what the Iranian government intended to do with these protesters after their arrests. But in early November, the Iranian Parliament released a letter signed by a majority of its members in which the legislative body called on the Iranian judiciary to dole out austere retribution. The letter, endorsed by 227 of the 290 legislators, referred to protestors as “enemies of God”: a criminal designation which is punishable by death. Afterwards, members of the Iranian parliaments reportedly chanted “death to seditionists” in a chilling display of despotic disregard for human rights and life.
Iranian courts seem to have assented. The unidentified defendant who was sentenced to death for “waging war against God” and “‘corruption on earth’” is merely one of many who will face similar charges. At least 10 other people have also been accused of capital crimes thus far, and there is no sign whatsoever that Iranian courts will exercise restraint in conducting their trials or the trials of the thousands of protesters who have yet to be formally charged.
False reports circulated online in mid-November that the Iranian government had sentenced 15,000 people to death. These reports were debunked, but the reality is that a mass execution of this scale is neither impossible nor unrealistic. Iranian authorities have brazenly displayed both a willingness to employ lethal force against civilians and an eagerness to implement political processes predicated upon violent intimidation in order to discourage further disorder and dissuade the Iranian people from seeking justice. And if history is any indication, there is no reason to expect that Iranian police will practice moderation in the streets, or that the Iranian judiciary will show leniency in the courtroom.
The international community must respond to this rapidly developing crisis, but must be sure to avoid harming innocent Iranian men, women, and children who are desperately trying to survive under the Iranian regime in a nation and region that have been routinely exploited for western interests and destabilized by western intervention. Rather than embracing aggressive military posturing or economic measures that will victimize the Iranian people, U.S. officials must tactfully avail themselves of diplomacy. The U.S. government can use targeted sanctions to directly undermine the elements of the Iranian regime, such as the morality police and prominent figures within the Iranian security apparatus, that are responsible for both recent events and historical atrocities. U.S. officials and third parties can also work to ensure that Iranians have access to the internet and other requisite technology for disseminating their message to the world. Most importantly, Americans and others can demonstrate support and solidarity by informing themselves of the plight of the Iranian public and sharing the stories of the Iranian people.
The protests in Iran are an immediate call for transparency in response to suppression, but they are also a broader struggle for fundamental human freedoms and dignity, particularly for marginalized women. They are an internal challenge to the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic of Iran: inspired and driven forward from within. In the face of violent repression and totalitarian abuses of power, neutrality and complacency cannot be valid options.