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.

Detained, cuffed and thrown in a cell for seven hours: reporting protest in the UK in 2022

There is no substitute for witnessing events firsthand and telling your readers about them. Reporting is simple like this. When asked by a contact if I wanted to cover a Just Stop Oil protest in West London this August I set my alarm.

JSO’s progenitor Insulate Britain inflicted misery on ordinary Londoners (our readers) in a month of direct action in September 2021. They blocked traffic by sitting down at junctions around the M25 to protest new fossil fuels. By 2022, it was blindingly obvious this invite was a chance to get up close to a protest group which had proved divisive across the country. Some think these more radical actions are justified while others worry they repel popular support for climate change activism.

Really it doesn’t matter what anyone thinks about Just Stop Oil’s tactics or the UK Government’s response to climate change, my job is to report who, what, where, when and why things are happening on my patch and let our readers decide. I can’t do this properly by relying on press officers.

At 6:30am on 26 August I arrived at Talgarth Road BP garage in Hammersmith with my laptop, portable charger, a pocket full of pens and a notebook.

I was late. Armed with special hammers used to break glass in an emergency, the protesters were already battering the pumps and spraying them with paint. I grabbed my phone, filmed it, and then sent it to our newsroom. They published it and started a live blog. I then began interviewing protesters, some of whom were already handcuffed, to ask why they were doing this. I planned to speak to the drivers and garage staff too.

I’m 24 and I’ve only been reporting for a year, but I’ve spent some time with the Metropolitan Police. I’ve joined the force for a ride along to see what frontline policing looks like and I’ve had polite exchanges at crime scenes. I’ve also had a couple of disagreements. I’d had one tiff about photographing a building which had exploded in East London earlier that month. It ended with me reading the College of Policing Guidelines on media relations to the officer from my phone. I was also once told I couldn’t take photos of a car that was parked outside a murder scene. After some back and forth, the officer wrapped the car in tape. I’m still not sure what this achieved.

Maybe it was these experiences, or my inexperience, but I wasn’t that surprised when – doing my job – I was singled out and detained, then arrested. I’ve been reliably informed since this isn’t normal.

Callum Cuddeford’s press card did not stop his arrest

Hands cuffed at the front, pen in mouth, I asked the officer to look at my press card which he let me produce from my pocket. This didn’t make any difference.

The officers said I was accused of criminal damage by staff at the garage (a case of mistaken identity), and that they had to arrest me. My first thought was to shout at a nearby freelance photographer to make sure he got a good photo. I also tried to tell him to get a message to my editor. The officers shouted me down and said anything I said now could incriminate me. This was chilling, so I stayed quiet.

Clearly a press card is not a ‘Get out of Jail Free’ card. Just ask photographer Peter Macdiarmid (arrested by Surrey Police at a JSO protest 24 August), documentary maker Richard Felgate (arrested twice covering JSO protests), photographer Jamie Lashmar (stop and searched at JSO protest 19 October), photographer Tom Bowles (arrested and house searched by Herts Police at JSO protest 7 November) and LBC reporter Charlotte Lynch (arrested by Herts Police at JSO protest 8 November).

Though the arrests were made at different times, by different police forces, for different reasons, they all ended without a charge. Even if it is stupidity, mistaken identity or human error, it’s unsettling for freedom of expression and a waste of time for stretched emergency services.

I understand some officers are wondering why reporters and photographers know where the protests are happening, often before the police. The answer: Some get tip offs and others guess, but that doesn’t make us complicit. Suggesting so sets a dangerous precedent.

In all I was locked up for seven hours, which was uncomfortable, inconvenient and quite boring. But it was informative to feel helpless. I had the privilege of experiencing a police cell knowing I would probably be freed.

Still, the combination of a barren room, blasting light and constant thought-tennis led me into a moment of spiral. I questioned my own innocence.

The Police, Crime Sentencing and Courts Bill – opposed by senior police officers and three former Prime Ministers – was given royal assent in April. Human Rights group Liberty described the bill as “seriously worrying” and warned it will “hit those communities already affected by over-policing hardest”.

The new laws were designed to help police crackdown on disruption caused by Just Stop Oil, Insulate Britain and Extinction Rebellion, but on the face of it the new powers seems to have emboldened some police officers. Even if the police can produce a valid argument for each arrest, the result is still disturbing.

The alleged assault of a Daily Mirror reporter in Bristol in January 2021 and the arrest of a photographer at a demonstration in Kent in the same year shows over-policing isn’t new, but the consistency with which arrests have been made over the past few months feels like the natural result of a government shifting towards authoritarianism.

Police officers are under pressure in dangerous situations, but rights to film and photograph, report on civil disobedience and protect confidential sources are all fundamental to press freedom.

I can’t help but be sceptical about my arrest, especially in the context of this week’s triple nicking, but I still gave the officers the benefit of the doubt in a fast moving and potentially dangerous situation. Equally I can’t ignore the uncomfortable pattern emerging in which journalists should prepare themselves for a day in the cells if they want to cover a climate protest.

My release was expedited because I had a luminous yellow cycling bag on my back. When the police did finally check the CCTV (seven hours later) it was clear I wasn’t involved in the protest. I laughed about this with an officer as he handed me my things back, but it’s not a good solution.

Newsrooms and police forces need each other from crime scene to courtroom, witness appeals, giving victims of crime exposure, holding the police to account or indeed cracking down on illegal newsgathering.

You can bet it won’t put off a single reporter, but these arrests have already brought UK press freedom into question

An unwelcome return to the 1970s

Index on Censorship was launched in the early 1970s. In theory the world was a very different place, but in recent days the news does feel a little like déjà vu.

Fifty years ago, the world was split into two main camps – the West and the Soviet bloc – with a Cold War dominating geo-politics in the hope of preventing a hot war.

In 1972 the inflation rate in the UK was 7.13%.

The wider economic situation in Britain led to significant industrial action, with 23,909,000 working days affected in that same year.

China was still diplomatically isolated – although 1972 saw the first public efforts of engagement with the West, when President Nixon visited Beijing.

Back in the US, women were demanding rights over their bodies, with Roe vs Wade being upheld by the US Supreme Court the following year.

As Mark Twain said: “History doesn’t repeat – but it does rhyme.”

I really want to believe that as democratic societies we are on a progressive arc – that governments, and more importantly their electorate, over time becomes more liberal, more tolerant, and more enlightened. That is after all why I am an advocate of freedom of expression – the more people can debate and engage and argue, the better our collective societies become.

The events of 2022, so far, are challenging this core belief. And it would be easy to roll over and believe that the end is nigh. But we can’t and we won’t. I believe in people – I believe in the power of politics and most importantly I believe that our core democratic values overcome tyranny.

But there is one thing that we need to embrace as the world seems bleak. Nothing happens in isolation and our core values are not things that we can be complacent about.

Democratic leaders let our global institutions atrophy – our post-Covid world is a direct consequence of failing to invest in the global post-war institutions which we established to protect international law and to provide a place for global diplomacy.

The attack on women’s rights in the US hasn’t happened by accident, it’s a consequence of people voting – or not voting. Turnout in the 2016 general election in the US was less than 60% and that gave us Donald Trump.

So, there is a lesson to be learned from what is happening in democratic societies across the world – and that lesson isn’t to walk away, it is to get more involved. It’s to demand more and to demand better of those that seek to lead us. It’s to exercise every campaigning option that is given to us and protected for us by our rights to freedom of expression. And, most crucially it is to make a stand against those politicians that seek to cultivate hate and division – because their success leads to attacks on our core human rights – including what we do to our own bodies.

Major public protest in Cuba might be turning point for free expression

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_single_image image=”115928″ img_size=”full” add_caption=”yes”][vc_column_text]In the middle of the night on 28 November, 32 Cuban artists emerged from a five-hour meeting with officials of the Ministry of Culture. They had called on the Cuban government to refrain from harassing independent artists, to stop treating dissent as a crime, and to cease its violence against the San Isidro Movement, a group of artists and activists that had staged a hunger strike to protest the arrest and sentencing of a young rapper. The news of the encounter was shared with a crowd of about 300 artists, writers, actors and filmmakers who had stood outside for more than 12 hours to pressure ministers to open their doors. Nothing like this had ever happened before on the island.

Cubans may complain about food shortages and other restrictions on their lives, but members of elite professions rarely stick their necks out to defend anyone that the state labels a dissident. It is unheard of to exhort Cuban officials to listen to their most vocal critics in person. Although the artists of the San Isidro Movement were known to many, harassment of the group had not generated a major outcry. But in the past three years the Cuban government has issued laws imposing restrictions on independent art, music, filmmaking, and journalism, incurring the anger of many creators. When they saw live streamed videos of the weakened hunger strikers being attacked by security agents disguised as health workers, they decided that enough was enough.

“This is the first time that artists and intellectuals in Cuba are challenging the constitution,” said Cuban historian Rafael Rojas in a radio broadcast. “Their emphasis on freedom of expression and association challenges the legal, constitutional, and institutional limits of the Cuban political system.” In an interview with journalist Jorge Ramos, artist Tania Bruguera said the uprising started because, “a group of Cuban artists have gotten tired of putting up with being abused, harassed and pursued by police because of their political views and for their independence from state institutions.”

Within 48 hours, the Cuban government began to renege on verbal promises made at the meeting not to harass the protesters. President Diaz-Canel, Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez, Minister of Culture Alpidio Alonso, and Casa de las Americas director Abel Prieto all tweeted defamatory statements about the protesters. Cuban state television aired several programmes lambasting the San Isidro Movement, Tania Bruguera, and journalist Carlos Manuel Alvarez as mercenaries paid by the USA to destabilise the revolution. Bruguera and Luis Manuel Otero Alcantara were threatened by state security and detained for walking outside. Police blocked off and guarded the street where the Ministry of Culture is located. Several activists and independent journalists were placed under house arrest. Police shut down the headquarters of INSTAR, Tania Bruguera’s International Institute of Artivism. The San Isidro Movement was accused on Cuban television of breaking the windows of a hard currency store, but it was soon revealed that the man who committed the act was an agent provocateur working for Cuban police.

The protests come at a moment when the Cuban government has been shaken by the colossal loss of tourism revenue during the pandemic, the dwindling support from Venezuela, and the tightening of the US trade embargo during the Trump years. It was a sign of weakness that officials ceded to the demand for a face-to-face encounter with protesters.

But the state’s reaction is not surprising. Cultural Ministry officials are expected to respond to the demands of the Communist Party and State Security, not to citizens organised outside state sanctioned organisations. The slanderous campaigns on state television and social media are intimidation tactics aimed at preventing more Cubans from rising up. And it is also not unusual for the Cuban government to clamp down on dissent during economic downturns, as happened after the failed 10-million-ton harvest in 1971 and after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

What is extraordinary is that young Cuban intellectuals and artists have chosen to air their grievances publicly and collectively, and to support each other regardless of divergent political opinions. They have not been seduced by promises of favourable treatment from the state in exchange for silence, nor are they succumbing to the self-doubt that police states are so adept at inculcating in the citizenry. Most importantly, despite persistent police harassment, they are not giving up. They have adopted a name–27N–in commemoration of the day they first came together. A few members of the San Isidro Movement are part of 27N, but the group also includes representatives of other cultural fields that participated in the mass protest. 27N has formed subcommittees to attend to various tasks, from media relations to visual documentation to legal consultations.

27N continues to prepare for the next session with officials. They posted an initial list of demands in an online petition: political freedom for all Cubans, the release of the rapper Denis Solís, the cessation of state repression of artists and journalists who think differently, the cessation of defamatory media campaigns against independent artists, journalists and activists because of their political views, and the right to and respect for independence. On 27 November, Cuban officials promised a second meeting, but on 4 December the Ministry of Culture terminated the dialogue due to an “insolent” email from the protesters, who had requested to have a lawyer present and asked that harassment against them cease. Instead, the Ministry convened a meeting with small group of artists that were deemed to be loyal to the revolution. A 27N meeting at the Institute of Artivismo (INSTAR) in Havana.

The retreat may have been a result of orders from higher ranking officials as famous Cuban folk singer Silvio Rodriguez suggested. Rodriguez, considered by many to be an apologist for the regime, nonetheless understands that the officials in the cultural ministry were engaging in a defensive, though morally illegitimate, political move.

It is not surprising that prominent but independently minded Cuban artists and intellectuals such as singers Carlos Varela and Haydee Milanés have voiced support for the protesters. But it was nothing short of astonishing that the regional chapters of the Union of Cuban Artists and Writers (La Unión de Escritores y Artistas de Cuba, UNEAC) and the Hermanos Saíz Brigade on the Island of Pines posted a message of solidarity with the San Isidro Movement on 7 December on Facebook, decrying the Cuban government’s defamatory campaigns, writing on Facebook, “We will not advance toward a dialogue and mutual respect by resorting to dismissive insults.” Cuba’s political culture does not embrace public expressions of dissent within its ranks, nor do regional representatives of organization tend to speak out about activities in the capital.

Changes in Cuban culture played a significant role in the November 27 protest. For the young Cubans who rose up in rebellion, their smartphones are weapons they use both to inform and defend themselves. The legalisation of cell phone possession in 2008 and the opening of phone-based internet access in 2018 utterly transformed Cuban public discourse. Young Cubans use Facebook as an alternative public sphere in which to share news, air grievances, galvanise support for causes and cast aspersions on their leaders. Official state media has been upstaged. Cuba’s leaders are being thrust into arguments with disgruntled citizens on social media – and their responses are undignified to say the least. The Cuban government tries to block access to opposition media, but young Cubans fight back with VPN networks and mirror sites. In her daily podcast, Yoani Sánchez explains to listeners how to use a VPN. Dozens of independent journalism publications and streaming channels have blossomed on the internet, providing Cubans with news and views that would never appear in state media.

Communication between Cuban exiles and islanders is fluid and constant, signalling a complete breakdown of the state’s effort to drive a wedge between those inside and outside the country. Cubans have grown more emboldened by being able to see what others like them do and by witnessing what the state does to other Cubans. WhatsApp chats facilitate the creation of organisations based on special interests, including Cuban doctors on medical missions who share information about the oppressive labour conditions and constant surveillance they experience. The island now has independent animal rights groups, LGBTQ groups, feminist groups and anti-racist groups, all of which have organised smaller protests in recent years using social media.

The Cuban government continues to dismiss all forms of dissent on the island as the works of mercenaries trained, financed and mobilised by the United States government as part of a long-term regime change strategy. More than a few progressives outside Cuba parrot that rhetoric or at least feel obligated to prioritise their condemnation of US policies over concerns about Cubans’ civil rights. Many Cubans and Cuban-Americans, myself included, would argue that it is a mistake to rationalise or diminish the Cuban government’s repression of civil liberties and blame the embargo for the government’s stance toward its citizens. While USAID has awarded $16,569,889 for Cuba pro-democracy efforts since 2017, including financing of some of the opposition media, not all Cuban media beyond the island government’s control was invented by the CIA, nor is all Cubans’ opposition to their government a product of American meddling. Cubans do not need the United States to “help” them develop critical views of their government. “Anger rather than fear is the widespread sentiment among Cubans—a constant, built-in discomfort,” writes Carlos Manuel Alvarez. “We’re fed up with blind, doctrinaire zeal. Navigating Communism is like trying to cross a cobblestone road in high heels, trying not to fall, feigning normalcy. Some of us end up twisting our ankles.”

Most complaints of police repression, domestic violence, animal mistreatment, food shortages and poor public services in Cuba come from ordinary Cuban citizens who post their grievances on Facebook. No American planes are dropping leaflets from the sky to provide instructions. Cuban exiles send billions of dollars to relatives and friends each year, and much of that money pays for cell phones, internet, computers and other tech equipment that allow islanders to send and receive information. Important opposition media outlets, such as 14yMedio and CiberCuba, are entirely privately financed. Tania Bruguera and Yoani Sanchez have made a point of not accepting any funding from the US government, and savvy musicians and filmmakers use crowd funding campaigns to support their projects. The bulk of US State Department funding for Cuba-related activities stays in Miami, where media companies, publishers and cultural promoters can operate freely.

Cuban citizens may have limited legal rights, but they do not lack agency; they choose to apply for foreign grants or to work for media outlets funded by American sources. I do not make these points because I favour US-backed regime change –  I am arguing for a more nuanced understanding of the dynamics that are leading to more frequent, more visible and more organised protests in Cuba. I am also arguing against the Cuban government’s position that does not differentiate between a CIA-financed assassin and an independent journalist who writes a brilliant essay about Cuba’s public health system, or an artist who recites poetry outside a police station.

The recent confrontation at the Ministry of Culture raised the hopes of many Cubans around the world. It also generated skepticism from those who say that dialogue with the Cuban government is futile, and that artists don’t have the knowhow to bring about political change. It’s worth recalling that the Charter 77 civic movement in former Czechoslovakia started in response to the arrest of a psychedelic rock band. The myth of Cuba as a political utopia is the revolution’s jugular: it draws tourist dollars and foreign aid, but its claim to truth is undermined by the harsh lived realities of 11 million citizens. Cuban artists and intellectuals have been enjoined to sustain that myth for 60 years. Their collective refusal to do now is a clear sign that change is on the horizon.

Coco Fusco is an artist and writer and the author of Dangerous Moves: Performance and Politics in Cuba (Tate Publications, 2015). She is a professor at The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art

This article was originally publishing in the North American Congress on Latin America here. Some minor alterations have been made to conform to Index house style[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][/vc_column][/vc_row]