05.13.10

Iran's Execution Machine

When the Iranian government executed five people last week, the opposition took it as a warning. Omid Memarian on Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's increasingly brutal tactic.

When the Iranian government executed four men and a woman in the notorious Evin Prison, the country’s dissidents took it as a warning: Protest and this could happen to you.

In the days since, the killings have been widely debated among Iranians at home and abroad. Opposition leaders and human-rights advocates say the government of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is using executions to spread fear and intimidation, and to suppress the opposition in advance of the one-year anniversary of the country’s disputed elections next month.

“Considering the current state of affairs, the country is in a very dangerous position,” Nobel Peace Laureate Shirin Ebadi told The Daily Beast.

“I don’t know how some people feel justified to send a young woman… so full of hope and energy, to her death.”

On Sunday, Iran’s Revolutionary Court announced that five political prisoners—Farzad Kamangar, Ali Heidarian, Farhad Vakili, Shirin Alamholy, and Mehdi Eslamian—had been executed on charges of bombing government offices and for belonging to the Kurdish opposition group Pejak.

Ebadi, one of the most prominent Iranian human-rights lawyers, warned of more executions to come.

“A government turns violent when its public base has weakened,” she said.

Opposition leader Mir-Hossein Mousavi issued a statement, published on the reformist website Kalame, that described the executions as “unfair” and part of a campaign that has “led to death and prison sentences for many Iranian citizens.”

After last year’s June 12 election, millions of Iranians poured into the streets to protest what they believe was a rigged vote. The Iranian authorities cracked down hard, arresting more than 5,000 protesters and hundreds of students, journalists, human-rights activists, and reformist politicians. Dozens of people were killed in the clashes.

A dozen people who protested last year’s election have been sentenced to death, and in January, two political prisoners were executed. At least 388 people were executed in Iran last year, putting Iran next to China with one of the highest rates of executions in the world, according to Amnesty International, which, along with Human Rights Watch, condemned the latest executions.

It’s “causing much concern that the government of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is relying on such executions to consolidate its power and silence any critical voices,” Hadi Ghaemi, the executive director of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, told The Daily Beast. “In many ways, this policy is an indication of how much this government fears its own population, and resorts to raw violence and intimidation to keep it in check. Many Iranians see this policy as harking back to the 1980s, when political executions were a routine occurrence and a matter of state policy to hold on to power.”

The lawyer for Kamangar, who was among those executed on Sunday, refuted the Iranian government’s charges in an interview with The Daily Beast.

“It’s not true that these men were involved in planting bombs,” said Khalil Bahramian, the lawyer, who added that his client, a teacher, wasn’t even a member of the opposition group as charged. “Kamangar was a completely innocent individual.”

Another human-rights lawyer told The Daily Beast that Iranian intelligence agents exert strong influence on the judiciary.

"None of the post-elections cases have been through a free and fair trial," said the lawyer, speaking anonymously because of safety concerns. “In the political cases, it’s not the judges who make the decision. It’s the intelligence ministry that makes the decision and the judiciary just announces it.”

According Iranian law, the condemned’s relatives and lawyer should be informed and allowed to be present for the execution. But both in January and last week, state-controlled media informed the relatives and lawyers of the executions afterward. And when the families of the executed announced a sit-in in front of Tehran University, authorities blocked their way.

Prevented from protesting openly in the streets, thousands of Iranians instead expressed solidarity online and criticized the secretive way in which authorities carried out the executions. “We believe it was a political decision,” a student at Tehran University told The Daily Beast, on condition of anonymity. “They [were] murdered.”

Silva Haratounian, an Iranian-Armenian who spent 13 months in prison on charges of working with a NGO that was partially funded by the U.S. government, spent more than eight months in Evin Prison’s general ward with Shirin Alamholi, 29, the lone woman executed last week.

Haratounian said she was shocked by the killing of her former cellmate, someone she described as full of hope and beloved even by the wardens.

“She never accepted her charges, and didn't think she would be executed. Nobody thought she would be executed,” Haratounian told The Daily Beast. “I don't know how some people feel justified to send a young woman… so full of hope and energy, to her death for their own games.”

Omid Memarian is columnist whose writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, and other publications. He was a World Peace Fellow at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism in 2007-2009 and the 2005 recipient of the Human Rights Defender Award, the highest honor bestowed by Human Rights Watch.