Remember their names: The protesters executed by the Iranian authorities

As of last week four young men have been executed at the hands of the Iranian regime. They were arrested while participating in the recent protests sparked by the death in custody of Jina (Mahsa) Amini. After being tortured and forced to make confessions, they faced grossly unfair show trials. Without strong condemnation, this death toll will grow – there are many more who have currently been sentenced to execution. Here we remember those four who died fighting for freedom.

Mohammad Mehdi Karami 

Mohammad Mehdi Karami was a 22-year-old Kurdish Iranian man From Karaj in the Alborz province of Iran. He was arrested on 5 November 2022 for allegedly killing a member of the security forces and was executed just two months later on 7 January. At the time of his death, he had been on hunger strike for four days, demanding access to his lawyer.

Mohammad was a national karate champion who had several national titles. In an interview with Etemad newspaper, his father describes Mohammad as “an athlete who constantly strived to achieve honours”. In the video, uploaded on 12 December, he pleads with authorities to release his son and recounts various attempts to contact the lawyer who was appointed to his son by the judiciary, all of which were ignored. He describes a phone conversation with Mohammad in which the young man sobbed and begged his father not to tell his mother about his sentence. “Mehdi’s mother is very attached to him,” he said. “If something happens to Mehdi, our lives will also end”.

Mohammad attempted to appeal his sentence but was denied. His father maintains that on their final phone call, his son swore to have not committed murder. The family was not allowed to see him to say goodbye before he was hanged. They camped outside the Rajai Shahr prison in Karaj. The prison guards reassured them that he was alive and well. They told the family that rumours of execution were false and to return home. Mohammad’s grave is in Eshtehard, Alborz. Mehdi Beyk, the journalist who interviewed Karami’s parents, was later arrested.

Seyed Mohammad Hosseini

Seyed Mohammad Hosseini, 39, was a worker remembered for volunteering with children by a German parliamentarian who advocated his case.

Hosseini was convicted for allegedly murdering a member of the security forces and was executed on 7 January. His lawyer, Ali Sharifzadeh Ardakani, described meeting him in prison: “He was in tears, talking about how he was tortured and beaten while blindfolded.” Ardakani previously revealed that the court had denied him access to case materials to defend his client during the entire interrogation and trial process.

Seyed Mohammad was an orphan with no immediate family to receive his body after his execution. His brother was also arrested but disappeared after release. Mohammad’s friends weren’t allowed to visit him in prison. He was buried near Mohammad Mehdi Karami’s grave in Eshtehard, Alborz. Mohammad Mehdi’s family attended Mohammad’s grave, lit candles and placed flowers there in his memory.

Majidreza Rahnavard

Majidreza Rahnavard was publicly executed on 12 December, just 23 days after his arrest.

Majidreza Rahnavard. Photo: 1500tasvir_en (CC BY-SA 4.0)

He was charged with allegedly fatally stabbing two Basij militia volunteers. The 23-year-old was denied a lawyer of his choice for his trial.

The lawyer he was given did not put up a defence. Mahmood Amiry-Moghaddam, director of Norway-based Iran Human Rights, tweeted that Rahnavard was sentenced based on “coerced confessions, after a grossly unfair process and a show trial”.

Majidreza’s mother was not told about his execution until after his death. Activist collective 1500tasvir said on Twitter that the family received a telephone call from an official at 07:00 local time. They said: “We have killed your son and buried his body in Behesht-e Reza cemetery.”

In a video aired by authorities, Rahnavard appears blindfolded, surrounded by masked men. He is asked what he wrote in his will. He says: “I don’t want anyone to pray, or to cry. I want everyone to be happy and play happy music.”

Mohsen Shekari

Mohsen Shekari, 23, worked in a cafe. He was arrested on 25 September for trying to stop security forces from attacking protesters in Tehran. He was the first person to be executed by the state on 8 December after being convicted of injuring a member of Iran’s Basij militia or “waging war against God”. While authorities asserted that he wielded a machete, Shekari’s family disputed this version of events, claiming he used non-violent means to separate protesters and security forces.

Mohsen Shekari. Photo: Unknown (CC BY 4.0).

Shekari’s uncle told The Guardian that authorities did not release his body. Other families of dead protesters have made similar statements. He said that the family had been sent to two cemeteries, but that when they arrived at the locations, they were told the body was not there. Although Mohsen’s mother saw her son the night before his hanging, she was ordered to remain silent about his fate.

Shekari’s judge had the choice to impose a lighter sentence and chose not to do so. Shekari appealed the verdict but was denied by Iran’s Supreme Court, despite the fact that he was not represented by his lawyer at the time of the appeal.

Failed empty gesture 0 – 1 Strong silent stand

The football commentator’s well-worn cliché about the sport being a game of two halves usually refers to the action on the pitch. But in the build-up to the game between England and Iran at the 2022 FIFA World Cup earlier this week, it was the off-field actions of the teams which showed a divided response to events in the wider world.

Shortly before kick-off, it was decided by the English FA (among other European football governing bodies) that England’s Harry Kane would forgo wearing the OneLove captain’s armband, which displays a heart containing colours representative of all backgrounds and is part of a message promoting inclusion. The reason given by the FA was that “we can’t put our players in a position where they could face sporting sanctions including bookings.”

Then, just before the match, as the Iranian national anthem rang around the Khalifa International Stadium in Doha, the Iranian players remained silent. Referencing the now-months long protests in Iran, which are pushing for regime change after the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in Tehran on 13 September 2022, Iranian captain Ehsan Hajsafi said that: “We have to accept the conditions in our country are not right. Our people are not happy. We are here but it does not mean we should not be their voice or must not respect them.”

The actions, or rather inactions, of the English FA and the Iranian footballers have had contrasting results. By aiming first but then relenting on the promise to have Kane wear the armband shows just what a failed empty gesture it was. A financial fine would have been accepted, but the fear of a single yellow card forced the FA’s hand (and that of other countries, such as Wales, Germany and the Netherlands). Were the teams and players ever really behind it if they could u-turn so quickly?

On the other hand, the silence of the Iranian footballers has shown the courage that a united action brings, not least given how much higher the risks – the repercussions the footballers may face on the return to their homeland, where they will have family and friends, are far more severe than a card brandished on the pitch.

That said we should be careful about where we lay blame in terms of not wearing the armband. It is understood that Kane still wanted to wear it, and even if he didn’t, is it fair to expect the England players to be politically active in the course of what essentially is their day job (as Julian Baggini argues in our last issue)?

The bigger fault lies squarely at the hands of FIFA for awarding the tournament to Qatar, as well as the governments and authorities around the world who have said very little about the country’s abuses since 2010. When news organisations have reported on abuses, especially on the Kafala system, which ensured an extremely cheap labour force was on hand to build the infrastructure for the World Cup, journalists were detained and threatened – again to very little public outcry. While minor changes have been made to improve the labour system, reports that at least 6,500 migrant workers still died since 2010 has again received far too little outrage.

Even during the immediate build up to, and including the tournament so far, FIFA appears happy to kowtow to Qatar’s last-minute demands. While the consumption of alcohol isn’t a free speech issue, FIFA’s agreement to Qatar’s last-minute ban on the sale of alcohol in stadiums is yet another sign that it is Qatar who are setting the rules. Also, despite assurances from FIFA, rainbow-coloured flags and attire were prohibited in spectator areas, as seen by the Welsh fans who had rainbow-coloured bucket fans confiscated before their opener against the USA. In a nation where homosexuality is still illegal these are hardly surprising actions but they show how arguments like “the World Cup will improve the rights situations in Qatar” was never a commitment taken seriously. The activist Peter Tatchell, an Index contributor who was himself detained following a protest to highlight LGBT rights in Qatar in October, puts it well: “#FIFA and #Qatar promised that LGBT+ fans & rainbow insignia would be allowed at #WorldCup. They have trashed that promise – and their reputations. But what did you expect from a sexist, homophobic & racist dictatorship?”

We at Index on Censorship love the fact that football is the world’s game, able to unite people across gender, race, religion and nationality. From Norway to Nigeria, it’s the universal language where a conversation about Manchester United or Lionel Messi can take place without knowledge of the native tongue. We have no issue with football and our Autumn issue showed its amazing power to transform lives. It’s for this reason that we remain angered that it is taking place in Qatar, who seem to be normalising their autocracy on a world stage. And it’s for this reason that we are angered that the simple threat of a yellow card has determined a retreat from taking a stand on such an important issue, even if that stand was small and largely symbolic. Iran might have lost against England on Monday but they proved to be the real winners when it came to courage and conviction.

Women pay ultimate price for Iran protests

The death in custody of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in Iran following her arrest by the “morality police” has sparked widespread protests across the country, with women taking a prominent role in demonstrating against their unequal treatment in the country. The Iranian regime, led by Ayatollah Khamenei, has responded with deadly violence.

Since Amini’s death on 16 September, precipitated by her arrest for not wearing the hijab correctly, at least 185 people, including at least 19 children, have been killed in the nationwide protests across Iran, according to the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI). The deaths of several young women involved in the protests has led to a growing chorus of outrage, both within the country and internationally.

Among the dead is Sarina Esmailzadeh, a 16-year-old girl who was killed following protests on 22 September in Mehrshahr, just outside Tehran, reportedly due to repeated baton blows by security forces. Authorities have aired “so-called” confessions by alleged family members stating that her death was suicide, which have been called into question.

Nika Shakarami (right) has also died, allegedly at the hands of the Iranian security forces, after she was pictured burning her hijab. The 17-year-old disappeared for nine days before her badly beaten body was identified by her family in a morgue.

Women human rights defenders and journalists are being targeted. Femena reports that women’s rights activist Narges Hosseini, one of the “Girls of Revolution Street”, who protested back in 2017 and 2018 about the compulsory hijab, was arrested on 22 September in Kashan in central Iran. Four years ago, she spent three months in prison on charges of “encouraging prostitution” and “non-observance of hijab”.

CHRI has also reported on the arrest of Niloufar Hamedi, a well-known journalist who first revealed the circumstances surrounding Mahsa Amini’s death that same say. Hamedi has been placed in solitary confinement in the notorious Evin prison.

Others who have been detained include journalist and woman human rights defender, Elaheh Mohammadi, Kurdish writer and filmmaker Mozhgan Kavusi  and photojournalist  Yalda Moayeri, according to Femena.

Golrokh Ebrahimi Iraeei, an Index contributor who was only released from prison in May 2022 after being imprisoned in 2014 on charges of insulting the Supreme Leader and spreading propaganda against the state, has also been rearrested.

The attacks and arrests have so far not managed to silence women, who continue to protest. According to the BBC World Service’s Rana Rahimpour women are walking the streets of Tehran with no hijab and cars are honking their support. School girls have also joined the protests. Social media posts that have gone viral show them going without a hijab and making rude gestures to and removing and covering the images of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei in their classrooms.

On 9 October, teenage girls in the city of Arak, southwest of capital Tehran, marched in protest chanting “death to the dictator”, before they were fired on with rubber bullets and tear gas by riot police.

Protests have also sprung up at universities across the country. Shots were fired indiscriminately by security forces at a protest at Tehran’s Sharif University on 8 October, according to CHRI. Students at the city’s University of Art held a demonstration on 10 October where they congregated to spell out the word “blood”. The same day, female students at the Polytechnic University chanted, “Tell my mother she no longer has a daughter” – a shocking reference to the fate that could befall the students for daring to protest.

Students of Amir Kabir university protest against the hijab. Photo: Darafsh Kaviyani

There are signs that support for the protests is spreading more widely. Oil workers in Iran, including port workers in Asaluyeh and refinery workers in Abadan, are striking in support of the protests. This could be significant as such protests have not been seen since the 1979 revolution.

The city of Sanandaj in Kurdistan has become the frontline of the protests and the regime has cracked down brutally, leading some to call the city a “war zone”. The CHRI reports that at least four people have been killed and more than 100 injured on 9 October. The government has deployed forces from outside the region in the city.

News that has emerged from Iran has made it out despite widespread internet and mobile network shutdowns in the country. NetBlocks has reported that the internet national mobile disruptions were in place once again and the internet had been cut in Sanandaj. Speaking to an Index correspondent over the phone from his home city of Sari in the north of Iran, the censored musician Mehdi Rajabian said: “It has become very difficult for me to access the free internet and the speeds of the platforms are very slow and blocked. I have to connect with a filter breaker and many times the filter breakers don’t work. Our communication is very slow.”

Such restrictions mean that the number of those killed, injured or detained is likely to be much higher.

There are signs that Iranians are increasingly looking to virtual private networks (VPNs) to help them circumvent the country’s internet broad censorship. Research by the VPN tracker shows that downloads of VPNs in Iran were 30 times higher at the end of September than in the previous 28 days and that demand for the services remains significantly heightened.

CHRI’s executive director Hadi Ghaemi feels that the situation is likely to worsen as Khamenei’s rule comes under growing pressure.

“The ruthless killings of civilians by security forces in Kurdistan Province, on the heels of the massacre in Baluchestan Province, are likely preludes to severe state violence to come,” said Ghaemi in a statement about the protests.

He said, “World leaders must move beyond statements of condemnation to collective action through an international front signalling to the government in Iran that the international community will not look the other way and conduct business as usual while it slaughters unarmed civilians.”

In response, Khamenei has said foreign states are responsible for driving the women’s protests. With support growing fast, he may soon no longer be able to lay the blame outside Iran’s borders.