We must not stay silent on Iran’s use of the death penalty

Terrorism, pain, suffering, torture, blood and fear. These are the currencies the Iranian regime trades in. From their support for global terror groups to their development of weapons of mass destruction – this is a regime which seeks to be a force for ill in the world. But while others focus on their geo-political impact it is their treatment of their citizenry which most concerns Index, especially those dissidents whose bravery inspires us every day.

It is clear that the protection of citizens comes secondary to the Iranian authorities who prioritise holding onto power over all other matters.

The murder of Mahsa (Jina) Amini, who was just 22-years-old, following her arrest in Tehran for an alleged breach of the Islamic republic’s strict dress code, on 16 September 2022 saw a new phase in challenging the status quo. This was the spark that lit the fuse on the Iranians’ want for freedom with ongoing protests across the country.

In response to these protests, the regime in Iran has doubled down on their repression. Eight protesters have been executed for daring to participate in the protests. Iran is ruthlessly targeting anyone who dares to challenge one of the most tyrannical regimes in the world. In recent days we have seen their barbaric treatment of one of our Freedom of Expression Award winners, Toomaj Salehi, who has been re-arrested after detailing the horrendous torture he has received in prison.

We will write a great deal in the coming months about what is happening to Toomaj. Today though I want to highlight the experiences of the voiceless. As ever with such regimes it is the children and the vulnerable who suffer most. Those whose voices are easiest to silence.

We all would agree, I hope, that children should be given warmth, love and security as they grow up. It is the most basic of human rights. This is simply not the case in Iran.

Their repression knows no bounds and has culminated in their use of the death penalty on a child.

Hamidreza Azari, a 17-year-old, was executed by the Iranian government as part of their recent slew of capital punishments. Hamidreza allegedly killed a man during a fight when he was 16 years old. We have no details of the incident but what we do know is that he is not in prison. He is now in a grave; murdered by the state, along with Milad Zohrevand, a dissident.

This act is against international law. Juveniles cannot be subject to capital punishment. Iran knows this only too well – which is why they lied about Hamidreza’s age in the official reports.

In the United Kingdom protesting does not come with the fear of death. It’s vitally important that people like me and you use our freedom to extol those of others. If we fail to stand up for the voiceless, then the estimated 582 people who have perished at the hands of the Iranian government since 2022 will continue to grow.

Tyrants win where silence prevails.

Ruhollah Zam: 27 July 1978 – 12 December 2020

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On Saturday 12 December, the founder of the Telegram news channel Amadnews, Ruhollah Zam, was hanged in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison.

Zam was born in Shahr-e-Rey, just outside Tehran, in 1978. He first came to prominence in 2009 after the re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad when he was jailed for voicing his opposition.

In 2011, after his release from prison, Zam, together with his wife and young daughter Niaz fled the country and were granted asylum in France, living initially in Paris before moving to a small town near Toulouse after he received threats.

Two and a half years ago, Zam co-founded the Amadnews channel on Telegram, which is hugely popular in Iran – it has 50 million users there and was reported at one point to account for 60% of the country’s entire internet usage.

Amadnews became popular for its criticism of Iran’s leaders and informed descriptions on the 2017 protests, which started as a protest against the economic policies of the government before developing into wider protests against Iran’s leaders. Twenty-five people died during the nationwide protests.

The channel grew quickly to have a million subscribers but at the end of 2017 Telegram shut it down saying the channel had called for armed uprisings. The channel reappeared under a new same, Sedaiemardom (voice of the people), just a few months later.

The story of how he even came to be in Iran again is mysterious.

In 2019, it is believed that he was lured to Iraq from his exile in France to meet the grand Ayatollah Sistani, the spiritual leader of the Iraqi Shia Muslims. While there, he was captured by agents of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps which issued a statement saying he had been detained “in a complicated operation”.

The statement said: “Despite being under the guidance of the French intelligence service and the support of the US and Zionist intelligence services…, and being guarded round the clock by various means and covers, he fell into a trap laid by… the IRGC’s Intelligence Organization.”

He was thrown into Evin prison and tortured for months and forced to make televised confessions of his ‘crimes’.

In June this year, Zam was tried in front of the Islamic Revolutionary Court in Tehran, presided over by Judge Abolqasem Salav and convicted on 13 counts of “spreading corruption on earth”. He was sentenced to death.

Despite going to appeal, on 8 December, the supreme court announced it had upheld the death sentence.

Zam’s father, the moderate cleric Mohammad Ali Zam, has revealed on Instagram what happened after the sentence was confirmed.

Last Friday, he was telephoned by an Iranian intelligence agent who said he could come and visit his son in the notorious Evin prison but not to tell him that the sentence for execution had been confirmed. His father reports that during the visit the family started to cry and the agent was afraid that Ruhollah might find out why and told him.

“Don’t worry Ruhollah. These are happy tears from visiting you. Even if the execution is confirmed, the process would take a while to be carried out and we will inform you of the whole process.”

On Saturday 12 December at 8am French time, his eldest daughter Niaz received a WhatsApp call from a number she didn’t recognise. It was her father.

They talked about her studies and getting her diploma but after five minutes the call had to end and her father said goodbye. There was a finality in his tone and Niaz knew this would be the last time they would speak.

Just a few hours later, Zam was paraded in front of television cameras and hanged.

There has been widespread condemnation of his execution.

United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement, “The international community must continue to hold the regime accountable for its unconscionable actions…The Iranian people deserve a free and diverse media, not censorship, arrests, and the execution of journalists.”

The European Union said it “condemns this act in the strongest terms and recalls once again its irrevocable opposition to the use of capital punishment under any circumstances. It is also imperative for the Iranian authorities to uphold the due process rights of accused individuals and to cease the practice of using televised confessions to establish and promote their guilt.”

Masih Alinejad, author of The Wind in My Hair: My Fight for Freedom in Modern Iran and who had campaigned to prevent the execution of young Iranian wrestler Navid Afkari, told Index, “By killing Zam, the Islamic Republic has shown that it is not interested in diplomacy. It is ironic that Zam was named after Rohallah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic, an evil system that is not willing to tolerate dissent from journalists.  Zam was a media pioneer who created the most influential news channel in recent memory.”

Javaid Rehman, UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran and Agnes Callamard, UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, said: “The conviction and execution of Mr Zam are unconscionable. The reports of his arrest, his treatment in detention, and the process of his trial, as well as the reasons for his targeting by the Iranian authorities, are a serious violation of Iran’s obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, including the right to freedom of opinion and expression and the right to life.

“It is clear that Ruhollah Zam was executed for expressing opinions and providing information on AmadNews that dissented from the official views of the Iranian Government.”

Index on Censorship’s CEO Ruth Smeeth has written a letter to the UN Secretary General condemning Zam’s murder.

She wrote: “Press freedom is a pillar of democracy. When journalists are targeted, all of society pays the price. Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights guarantees the right to freedom of opinion and expression to all…As a journalist, as a human rights activist, as a global citizen Ruhollah Zam should have been protected by the state of his birth, not murdered by them.”

Ruhollah Zam is survived by his wife Mahsa Razani and their two daughters.


Index Index – International free speech roundup 15/01/13

The European Court of Human Rights deemed today (15 January) that a woman working for British Airways was unfairly discriminated against for her religion. Nadia Eweida was fired by BA in 2006 for refusing to stop wearing her crucifix visibly. Judges ruled that Eweida’s rights under Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights were violated. Three other Christians who had taken their employees to court lost their cases. Shirley Chaplin, whose employer also stopped her wearing crucifix necklaces, Lillian Ladele, disciplined after refusing to conduct same-sex civil partner ceremonies — and Gary McFarlane, a marriage councillor fired for saying he might object to offering sex advice to gay couples.

 Elizabeth Brossa - Creative commons Flickr

Aaron Swartz’s suicide prompted calls for cyber law reform

The suicide of US activist Aaron Swartz on 11 January has prompted calls to reform computer crime laws in America. The 26 year old was awaiting trial, charged with 13 felony counts of wire fraud and hacking two years ago. Swartz had downloaded millions of academic papers from online archive JSTOR and was due to face trial in April, for which he could have been jailed for decades and faced massive fines. Calls for amendments to The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act have been widespread, with critics alleging that certain internet hacking laws are too vague and broad, and impose overly harsh penalties.

On 9 JanuaryIran’s Supreme Court ratified the death penalty of five Ahwazi (Arab-Iranian) human rights defenders. Hadi Rachedi, Hashim Shabani Nejad, Mohammad Ali Amuri Nejad, Jaber Al-Bushoke and his brother Mokhtar Al-Bushoke were arrested by Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and National Security in the spring of 2011. They were charged with spawning mischief, threatening national security and inciting propaganda against the Islamic Republic. The activists had been protesting for their right to speak Arabic, rather than the national language of Persian – a right that is written into Iranian constitution. They were allegedly tortured into giving false confessions in detention.

App developers Tencent have apologised to users of social media app WeChat, after the programme appeared to be censoring controversial terms globally. Tencent, China’s most widely used internet portal, blamed a “technical glitch” after it had blocked terms such as Southern Weekend and Falun Gong, a banned group in China often referred to as a sect. Activists have voiced concern that authorities are hacking the app, in order to increase surveillance on some of its 200million users. WeChat has subscribers in the UK and America, and will soon be launched across Asia.

US Vice President Joe Biden met with the president of the Entertainment Software Association on Friday, to discuss the gaming industry’s influence over violence, following a school shooting in Connecticut that prompted calls for reforms on gun policy. Biden’s White House meeting aimed to establish whether America was undergoing a “coarsening of our culture”, discussing how to eliminate the culture of violence, a happening the gaming industry is frequently blamed for. The National Rifle Association (NRA) had accounted the rate of gun crime in America to media and video game violence, which the gaming industry refuted, expressing fears that they could become a scapegoat in the Connecticut debate.

US: Mumia Abu-Jamal will not be executed

The death penalty has been dropped against a USA journalist in Philadelphia who has spent thirty years on death row. Mumia Abu-Jamal, who was convicted of killing white police officer Daniel Faulknerin 1981, will have his sentence commuted to life imprisonment, after Faulkner’s widow reportedly persuaded prosecutors to stop pushing for the death penalty. The death sentence of Abu-Jamal, a former member of the African-American leftist group Black Panther, was quashed in April, and the state of Pennsylvania was given six months to select a jury and hold a new sentencing hearing, or agree to a life sentence.