Little has changed in Iran since the popular uprising against Iran’s ruling party began more than nine weeks ago. Since the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini after her arrest by Iran’s Religious Morality Police, protests have spread to more than 160 cities across the country and, in a desperate attempt to maintain control, police and police secret crackdowns using deadly force and arresting protesters in large numbers, with reports of torture rampant in Iranian prisons. More than 15,800 protesters have been arrested and 344 have been killed since the protests began, according to the American press agency Human Rights Activists News Agency. This week, rumors that this entire group of protesters had been summarily sentenced to death spread quickly online, prompting strong reactions, including a statement from Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
The Prime Minister deleted this tweet after many fact checkers flagged it as fake. But what is happening in Iran now? Information is currently scarce as internet access in Iran has been severely restricted and the government has actively spread false stories. But human rights lawyer Hossein Raeesi, who practiced law in Iran for two decades before fleeing, has been able to closely follow events as they unfold through secret communications with people on the ground, some of whom were arrested for protesting. . He told me how the rumor spread, why the kernel of truth from which it grew is still important, and what he expects for imprisoned protesters in Iran. Our conversation has been edited and condensed.
Slate: Can you explain what happened with the viral story that said hundreds, if not thousands, of Iranian protesters were about to be mass executed?
Hossein Raesi: 227 of Iran’s 290 parliamentarians voted to issue a statement calling on Iran’s judiciary to issue an execution verdict against all protesters. It is not within their jurisdiction and parliament has no legitimate power to pass a death sentence on anyone. But because Iranian parliamentarians are loyal to the repressive government, they have lambasted after seeing Iranians, especially the younger generation, engage in relentless protests across the country. They were angry. The parliament is supposed to represent the people, but unfortunately it was not elected in free elections. Most parliamentarians were members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Almost all of the members who signed the statement were official members of the IRGC in the past.
For us Iranians, we know that they are not true representatives of Iranian society or the Iranian people. This vote is not irrelevant for them. Throughout the economic crisis during COVID, they did nothing to support the Iranian people. No one is surprised by this vote.
Is there any likelihood of this actually happening?
No, not for everyone. For some of them? Yes. Iran’s Revolutionary Court has already handed down its first death sentence. But the Iranian authorities are afraid. They know that if they execute anyone involved in the protests, it will inflame the Iranian people’s anger and strengthen the opposition against them. The Iranians are already saying enough is enough. There are many fiscal, social and cultural grievances, especially among women and ethnic minorities. The younger generation currently has no hope and nothing to lose. If the authorities start executing Iranians, people will come out even tougher. Also, judicially, it is currently not legal to do so, although we know that the judiciary is not independent and is loyal to the Supreme Leader. The consequences, I believe, will deter the government from listening to Parliament, because it will only add fuel to the fire.
Who is the first protester sentenced to death?
According to reports from NGOs in communication with activists and lawyers, nine people are currently at risk of the death penalty. The one who was condemned to death is Saman Yasin, a singer. He is a Kurdish Iranian from the Kurdistan region. They accused this man, who is an artist, of using a weapon against the authorities, although we don’t know if that’s true because he didn’t get a fair trial. He did not have access to his lawyer, any more than the eight other prisoners sentenced to death. None of them have the right to access case information or get support in any way, and we know they are all being tortured. The revolutionary tribunal accuses them of having committed a crime against Allah, against God. There are two charges: Moharebehwaging war against Allah, and Mofsed-e-filarz, spreading corruption on Earth. Both terms, Islamically, are not related to protest against the government. This means that the Iranian authorities and the Iranian judicial system are abusing the law to indict these people.
How does Islam used in this way complicate your feelings as an Iranian Muslim?
I believe the Iranian supreme leader is an extremist Muslim, like ISIS, the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. I believe that the Iranian government is worse than these groups. I strongly believe that the Iranian government abuses Islam to govern in its own way, without any regard for religion. They don’t care about Islam. They only care about their authority. There are currently oppressed Muslims in China and Chechnya, and the Iranian government is completely silent about this. To me, this proves that they are abusing the title of Islamic government to oppress people. Nothing more.
What do you hear about the conditions of detention of the demonstrators?
Around 15,000 people have been detained so far, according to unofficial estimates. Some of them were released, but most of them are still in prison. The age of the detainees ranges from 14 to 21 years old. Many of them are under 18. I have a number of colleagues who are in contact with them. Some are women, others are in hospital. A colleague of mine in Iran met 40 to 50 women whom they detained. All of them, she says, claim to have been tortured and covered in bruises. They don’t have access to lawyers. Many of them were arrested while demonstrating in front of their universities.
Is this removal effort working?
The unrest continues after almost two months. Due to the lethal force used by the government police forces and their secret militia, the Basij, the momentum behind the protests has slowed, but they are still widespread. Recently, children left their secondary school in Marvdasht, a small traditional town near Shiraz, and took off their headscarves and chanted against the authorities. The police were quick to crack down on these high school students. The images of the police attacking these children, and the resulting pools of blood, have provoked strong reactions from residents of other cities. Protests continue and students from hundreds of universities across Iran continue to defend civil rights, political rights and economic rights. People have already made the choice of regime change. The government has so far ignored them, but eventually they will have to listen.
What is the next step for detainees? What to do to change their destiny?
In my own experience, nothing. I myself have been in contact with people who have been detained and then released. They contact me for legal advice. But they tell me that they are going to join the demonstrators again. No one I’ve spoken to can bring themselves to change their destiny. I have also spoken with some of the families of detainees who are trying to pressure the government to change course on death penalty review, but no one has been successful so far. Some of those detained were arrested solely for spray-painting slogans against the Supreme Leader on the walls, such as Women, Life, Freedom. There are 160 cities across Iran involved in anti-government protests. I don’t see anyone changing course any time soon.
There are several intense rumors that are going viral, including that guards would rape female prisoners before their execution to deny them entry into the afterlife. Does this have any basis in reality?
It happened in 1980, not currently. This is not exact news. Prisoners are mistreated. But what about specifically raping virgins before execution to deny them paradise? Yes, it happened in 1980. This time? No.
Why is it so hard to get information from inside Iran right now?
They shut down the internet. And if you post pictures or images from your cell phone on social media or send them to a journalist, they may accuse you of spying. Protesters are advised to leave their cellphones at home as authorities are monitoring the movement of cellphone data to monitor who has joined the protest movement. They use this as evidence to charge people with crimes against the state. And at the same time, civil servants are spreading fake news through the media to influence society. It is currently extremely difficult to obtain information from inside Iran.
What are people wrong about what is happening in Iran?
Despite media oppression, there are videos that make it online. But there are only a few places I would recommend people look for this information. Iranian International Television is a satellite television channel that offers websites in English and Arabic. BBC World and the New York Times also publish reputable reports. We have Iranian students in universities who post reliable information with us on Telegram which we verify with family friends and lawyers in the field before sharing it with Iranian campaigns for human rights, like the one based in New York. Accurate information is the most important tool we have now.