Graffiti in Sanandaj, September 2018: "Execution is State Murder"
2018: A Crucial Year for Iran
When it comes to Iran, 2018 has been a year of brash voices and loud proclamations. This year, a new chapter seems to have opened in Iranians’ struggle for justice and freedom as protests swept the country starting in late December 2017, energizing old and new forms of resistance. Though the world’s attention was not always focused, protests and strikes continued almost daily through the year, ranging from January women’s protests against the compulsory hijab to the Gonabadi Darvishes’ February resistance to the arrest of their spiritual leader to the September truck driver’s strike to the ongoing Ahwaz steel workers’ strike. Workers, farmers, teachers, women, members of ethnic groups, and people from all walks of life expressed anger and demanded accountability for the ruling elite’s corruption and mismanagement and resulting dire economic situation, while shouts of “They looted us in the name of the religion!” and “Mr. Supreme Leader lives like a god while the people beg!” registered a broad dissatisfaction with the status quo.
Many observers failed to grasp the crucial importance of these movements and what they portend for future radical change, thus the charged language of the powerful dominated headlines and nuclear issues too often eclipsed popular struggle for justice and accountability. While the world failed to grasp the unprecedented nature of these various expressions of resistance, Iranian authorities noted their significance and launched a pernicious campaign of repression that has already claimed numerous victims.
Iran's judiciary dealt harshly with those who participated in the protests. Women who took to the streets in protest of the compulsory hijab early in the year were arrested, as was Farhad Meysami, a women's rights campaigner. Scores of Gonabadi darvishes were arrested in a February crackdown on demonstrations meant to protect their spiritual leader from arrest. Hundreds of Ahwazi Arabs were arrested in April after taking to the streets following a fatal coffeehouse fire. Kurdish activists were jailed for protesting early September executions, including one who demanded that the "machinery of death must stop." Some met less fortunate fates than jail time: Vahid Heidari died suspiciously in custody just days after being caught in sweeping arrests of protesters of Arak. Officials threatened demonstrating bazaar merchants and truck drivers with the death penalty. Lawyers who sought truth and due process for clients involved in the protests were met with harsh reactions by judiciary officials. A lawyer who attempted to follow up on the case of Vahid Heidari, Mohammad Najafi, was given a sentence of jail time and lashes rather than answers in the case. Lawyer Nasrin Sotudeh, who had taken on the cases of several women compulsory hijab protesters, was arrested in mid June.
The judiciary's failures to respect rule of law and protect citizens, the Revolutionary Courts' continued silencing of dissent 40 years after their inception, and the Revolutionary Guards' ability to act with impunity combine to exact a heavy toll on activists and ordinary citizens. Human rights defenders continued to be harassed, including Narges Mohammadi, as did other civil society activists, like a group of environmental activists arrested and exposed to heavy sentences. Imprisoned defendants like Narges Mohammadi and Arash Sadeghi have continued to have their basic rights to medical care in custody denied. Iran's judiciary also handed down and implemented death sentences in hasty, politically charged proceedings, including Gonabadi Darvish Mohammad Salas and two men executed in November for “economic corruption” offenses sentenced by special tribunals. The judiciary also carried out executions abruptly and secretly, like those of Zaniar Moradi, Loghman Moradi, and Ramin Hossein Panahi, previously given death sentences in closed and doubtful trials on the basis of coerced confessions.
Aware of the crucial importance of 2018 protests, faithful to its mission, and thanks to your generous support, Abdorrahman Boroumand Center intensified its efforts to patiently and tirelessly document state violations of human rights, memorialize those lost, and ensure that the truth is not erased by oppressors’ lies and propaganda.
Documenting evil and memorializing victims is only part of our work on behalf of justice; with an eye to the future, we also continued to strengthen the culture of human rights and democracy in Iran, equipping those calling for change with tools to articulate a positive vision. We also advocated for victims of violations, ensuring that even the smallest voice might be heard in the halls of power. You helped us bring to the world the voice of the voiceless.
As a token of our gratitude for your support, we’d like to share with you part of the work we’ve done in the past year. The review of our work is a window on the harsh ongoing repression in Iran and brings to light what ordinary citizens and human rights and civil society activists are enduring while bravely standing for their rights.
Our documentation work is more than an archive: it is also the foundation of an armory of information we and other advocates use to hold perpetrators accountable and encourage the reform required for a future in which the rights of all Iranians are respected.
One welcome fruit of advocacy work was this year’s decrease in drug executions. Though the 26 executions for defendants convicted on drug-related charges we collected reports on so far in 2018 (including 16 for which drugs were the sole charge given in reports) constitute a welcome decrease from past years, the fact that the amended drug law still assesses the death penalty for non-violent crimes, while continuing to criminalize addiction and assessing heavy fines which ruin families' livelihoods, means our work in this area is far from complete. The detailed information we provided to advocates engaged with drug control in Iran gave them a precise, grounded sense of the violent realities of the country’s war on drugs. This information was used to ensure counter-narcotics trafficking was used for programs consistent with human rights, spurring officials and lawmakers to act.
This year, ABC worked to elevate the issue of qassameh sentencing -
a mechanism Iranian judges can use to sentence a defendant to death absent any firm evidence on the sworn oaths of 50 of a plaintiff’s male relatives alone - to international attention through engagement with the United Nations and other stakeholders, social media work, and media appearances. These efforts bore fruit in August of this year, when the the UN Secretary General, outraged by such a patently unfair law, took the unprecedented step of calling for the abolition of qassameh in his report on the situation of human rights in Iran.
As in years past, ABC used detailed case information on low-profile, ordinary offenders to inform the UN General Secretary, UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Iran, and governmental stakeholders the world over about the toll the Iranian judiciary’s conduct takes on average citizens.
Memorialization: The Truth Shall Not Fade into Oblivion
In 2018 ABC continued documenting the violation of the right to life in Iran, including more than 233 executions so far this year (due to lack of independent investigation in Iran, these statistics are neither exact nor exhaustive.) Though a welcome decrease from the staggering highs of past years (509 in 2017 and 592 in 2016), even one execution is a tragedy in a system which relies on coerced confessions to convict and denies defendants the right to proper defense.
When ABC collects a report of an execution, our work has only just begun. For each victim of state violence, ABC aims to create a personalized entry in the Omid Memorial, a fund of collective memory meant to keep hope alive and teach future generations about the individual, human costs of institutional failures. The more than 5,000 cases we added to Omid Memorial this year cover a range of times frames, backgrounds, and charges. Spanning four decades of violations, the Memorial now includes 24,550 individual cases.
The August 19, 1979 burning of the Cinema Rex theater in Abadan, reported at the time to have claimed 377 lives, shocked Iranians’ conscience and represented a turning point in the course the revolution. When welder Hossein Takb’alizadeh was put on trial in highly publicized and politically charged proceedings in August 1980 by a newly-constituted Revolutionary Court, the prosecutor attempted to frame him as a collaborator with the monarchy’s secret police force. While confessing to the arson, Takb’alizadeh denied any collaboration with the former regime, protesting that he was being used as a scapegoat for groups close to those now in charge of the revolutionary government. Nonetheless, on September 4, 1980, the court sentenced Takb’alizadeh to death along with five other defendants and implemented their execution orders with haste, seeking to bury a politically inconvenient truth along with him.
Takb’alizadeh’s story, set against a background of deep research on historical context including 50 hours of trial video reviewed by ABC researchers, sheds light on the roots of Iran’s crisis of due process. In Omid, it stands as a lesson to future Iranians eager to avoid the mistakes of the past.
Our Omid work this year also memorialized much more recent victims of state violence. Vahid Heidari was a 23-year-old who worked as a street vendor in the city of Arak. The son of a wounded Iran-Iraq war veteran, his friends recount that he worked in hot and cold weather just to make ends meet. When widespread protests swept Arak in the closing days of 2017 and thousands turned out to shout such slogans as “No to Rising Prices” and “Death to the Dictator,” authorities conducted sweeping arrests, taking Heidari into custody. On January 5, 2018, in highly suspicious circumstances, the healthy, hardworking young man died in detention at a law enforcement facility. Though officials declared his death suicide and tarred Heidari with claims of drug addiction, an informed source reported that his skull bore fractures and a deep depression consistent with blunt force trauma. When a lawyer attempted to investigate the case, judicial officials did not respond with transparency, but with a sentence of flogging and jail time.
What really happened to Vahid Heidari? We will know the full truth when Iran's leader's respect the rights and lives of citizens and his family's right to seek justice. For now, his story endures in the Omid Memorial.
Strengthening Human Rights and Democracy
This year, ABC added more than 140 new documents to our human rights and democracy library. This searchable database makes available to the Persian speaking readership texts and international legislation on human rights, writings on democracy and ethics of citizenry, as well as victims’ testimonies, and reports on the situation of human rights in Iran, and offers English speakers an extensive set of translated resources related to the Iranian judiciary and the history of Iranians' struggle for a government which respects their rights.
Early in the year, following reports of deaths and mass arrests during crackdowns on countrywide demonstrations, ABC identified a vital need for legal education. Our legal experts composed simple, readable guides on the rights of citizens during arrest, their right to defense in legal cases, and procedures to be followed by families of persons killed in the course of protests, which our social media team quickly distributed.
To help advocates working to hold Iranian judicial officials accountable for their use of the death penalty, we produced legal analyses of the Majles’ 2017 drug law reform amendment and the Supreme Leader’s August 2018 directive on special tribunals for economic corruption. The drug law reform analysis identified shortcomings, inconsistencies, and ambiguities in a legislative measure which received much uncritical media praise, allowing advocates to more effectively hold officials to account for a policy which, though apparently effective in reducing overall number of executions so far, continues to violate Iran’s human rights commitments by allowing the death penalty to be handed down for non-violent drug offenses and vague aggravating circumstances subject to wide interpretation by judges. The analysis compliments our 40 years’ worth of data clearly demonstrating the failure of an executions-heavy approach to drug control in curbing addiction and trafficking.
Since its inception, ABC has been committed to the fight against the death penalty, an irrevocable punishment that is handed down by an Iranian judiciary which does not respect minimum standards of fairness and transparency. As part of this ongoing campaign, and to educate our citizenry about this complex issue, ABC translated into Persian and made available comparative information on the use of capital punishment and abolitionist efforts worldwide, including “Ohio Bishops: Replace Death Penalty with Mercy, Conversion”;“Great Majority of Native American Tribes in U.S. Don’t Practice Death Penalty”; “Death Penalty Expert Robin Maher: The Importance of Effective Defense for Mentally Ill Defendants”; and “Pope Francis: Death Penalty an Inhumane Measure that Abuses Human Dignity”.
In mid-September, in the course of widespread protests in areas with sizeable Kurdish communities which followed the sudden secretive execution of three Kurdish political prisoners, the following message appeared in Persian on a wall in the city of Sanandaj: “Execution is State Murder.” This bold statement marks a broader shift in the conversation about capital punishment in Iran in which ABC’s work, with the help of our supporters, has been instrumental.
The flagship of ABC’s anti-death penalty work in 2018 was the October launch of a new webpage, “The Death Penalty: A Punishment that Doesn’t End at the Gallows,” a platform which foregrounds the experiences of family, friends, and other loved ones whose lives are shattered when Iran’s judiciary sentences defendants to death. Their stories include those of a family for whom the execution of a juvenile offender who took the life of their young daughter “didn’t bring a bit of peace”; Mohammad Sediq Karimi, sentenced to death for involvement with a banned Kurdish group, whose wife was reduced to such hopelessness she told him she wished she could join him in jail; Serveh Mahmudzadeh, a woman whose young child threatened suicide after her husband was executed; and the family of Abolfazl Chazani, a juvenile offender put to death, who has been left with nothing but grief and isolation after the father of the child their son was accused of killing implemented their son’s death warrant himself.
In line with the capacities of social media and the tastes of a younger global audience, ABC debuted a number of death penalty-related audio-visual resources (now accessible on our recently launched video library page).
To encourage debate on the dark absurdity of Iran’s judiciary’s practices, ABC prepared a series of creative, humorous retellings of real-life cases which envision a special government task force charged with holding human rights violators to justice: NOPM: Special Forces for the People’s Protection, episodes one (257,142 views) and two (154,462 views).
To emphasize the right to legal counsel and its position in both Iranian and international law, as well as to trace the historical roots of Iran’s crisis of due process, ABC produced “Access to a Lawyer: A Matter of Life and Death”, featuring contemporary accounts of due process failures taken from our interviews.
“Interview with Mohsen Sabzichi”, an in-depth interview with a man whose hand was amputated for a first-time theft, calls into question the hodud-based punishment of amputation and hodud-based execution for crimes such as rape and adultery, homosexuality, and multiple counts of theft. Excerpts of the full version of the interview with Sabzichi was shared through a video by Amnesty International Iran team in January, after a man’s hand amputation sentence for sheep theft was carried out in Mashhad. Parts of the Sabizichi video were used to produce another resource focused on the use of hadd hand amputation punishments by Iran’s judiciary, which garnered over 405,000 views after an exceptional Telegram performance.
In “One Face of Iran’s War on Drugs Speaks”, an Iranian man now living outside the country whose struggle with addiction lead him to family difficulties and incarceration recounts his story and the “spider's web” of official values that trapped him. Though he first hoped prison would help him kick addiction, he was quickly disillusioned by an environment where drugs were readily made available with the complicity and cooperation of officials. He also recounts personal experiences from within the Iranian justice system alongside drug offenders and other ordinary, non-political prisoners.
With another year of progress behind us, thousands of stories have yet to be told, even as every week brings news of more lives shattered by a judicial system which fails to respect the inalienable human rights of the people who turn to it for justice. As the ABC team continues our vital work giving voice to those whose expression is policed and denied, please consider donating (anonymously by Paypal or JustGiving if you prefer). A generous donor will match your donation. It is only with your support that a growing chorus of calls for change will be sustained and amplified.
ABC wishes you the best this holiday season