We must not forget what is happening inside Iran

While Iran and Israel continue to provoke each other in the aftermath of the 7 October attacks by Hamas, there are concerns that the fate of protesters in Iran, particularly those that started after the murder in custody of Jina ‘Mahsa’ Amini, are being forgotten as the Iranian leadership cracks down.

“Governments often utilise external conflicts to divert attention from domestic issues,” says exiled Iranian film-maker Vahid Zarezadeh. “In Iran, while the government addresses threats from abroad, it simultaneously intensifies its grip on civil liberties at home, particularly targeting women’s freedoms. This approach helps consolidate power internally by rallying nationalistic sentiments while suppressing dissent.”

Zarezadeh, who made the documentary White Torture in collaboration with the jailed 2023 Nobel Peace Prize winner Narges Mohammadi and Gelareh Kakavand, says, “Given the complexities of the current events in Iran and the ongoing regional tensions, it’s crucial to understand the multifaceted nature of the strife affecting the nation, particularly its impact on women and civil society. As Iran navigates its ongoing conflict with Israel, another critical issue persists domestically: the war against women in the streets of Tehran and other cities. This battle is intensifying with new legislative measures concerning the hijab, marking the beginning of a renewed phase of systematic suppression.”

Last September, Iran’s parliament passed a bill with a huge majority that meant that refusing to wear a hijab, either in person or even on video on social media, was considered as nudity. The bill allows for jail sentences of up to ten years for those who fail to adhere to the new measures. Iranian businesses that “promote or allow immoral behaviour”, including not wearing the hijab, are also targeted by the bill.

Zarezadeh says that pressure from the Iranian authorities on protest and dissent has increased markedly.

“A stringent crackdown on dissent has emerged, characterised by the systematic suppression of women and civil activists,” he says. “While the massive protests have lessened in visibility due to severe governmental crackdowns, underlying discontent remains. The fear of reprisal, particularly the death penalty, has tempered the public’s willingness to protest as openly as before.”

Even with the new stricter laws on dress code, he says that resistance against the compulsory hijab continues as a symbol of wider discontent with systemic gender-based restrictions.

“Despite the risks, including severe penalties such as the death penalty, the spirit of dissent still simmers, manifesting in smaller, yet persistent protests,” he says.

The resistance is still being kept alive through social media, and X in particular, where the hashtag #جنگ_علیه_زنان (“war against women”) has gained traction. Its widespread usage serves as a barometer for the internal sentiment against the current regime’s policies.

Videos showing women being violent attacked in broad daylight by the morality police and being thrown into the backs of vans are being widely shared using the hashtag, such as this:

Many women human rights defenders and activists have been thrown in prison, and face dire conditions with no adequate medical or sanitary provisions.

“A poignant example is Bahareh Hedayat, a prominent student activist who was temporarily released for medical treatment due to uterine cancer but has since been returned to prison,” says Zarezdeh. “Such cases underscore the severe and deteriorating conditions faced by women behind bars.”

One powerful symbol in the protests over the last two years were the actions of schoolgirls in protesting against the restrictions on women.

However, young protesters, including many schoolgirls, have since faced detention and other forms of intimidation. Detailed follow-ups on their situations are scant due to restrictions on information flow within the country.

The fate of the Iranian woman climber Elnaz Rekabi is also far from clear. Rekabi competed in a climbing tournament in South Korea in 2022 without a hijab.

“After her act of defiance by competing without a hijab, Elnaz Rekabi faced both support and significant pressure upon her return to Iran,” says Zarezdeh

When she flew home from South Korea, Rekabi said that her hijab had fallen off inadvertently. Her family’s villa in Iran was subsequently demolished, seemingly in punishment.

Zarezdeh says, “The full extent of Rekabi’s current situation remains unclear with concerns about her freedom and well-being continuing to linger.”

There continues to be a hunger for reform despite the crackdown. “The initial surge in hope for a potential regime change has been dampened by the forceful response from the authorities,” says Zarezadeh. “However, the desire for reform and change persists among various sectors of the society.”

UK, USA continue attack of protest rights

After passing the Public Order Bill last year in the UK, which increased the powers of the police to restrict people’s fundamental rights to peaceful protest, the government is looking to restrict protest rights further. The new Criminal Justice Bill is currently being considered by parliament and contains measures designed to clamp down on protesters climbing on national monuments, hiding their face or carrying flares.

In their announcement of the new measures, the Home Office declared that the right to protest is “no longer an excuse for certain public order offences”. Additionally, attorney general Victoria Prentis KC is leading an attempt to outlaw the ‘consent’ defence for climate protesters, which argues that defendants have a lawful excuse for their actions due to their honest belief that those affected by their actions would consent to the damage had they understood the dangers of the climate emergency. This attack on what is one of the last remaining lawful defences available to climate activists has been described by environmental protest group Extinction Rebellion as “concerning”.

“The government would rather curtail our right to protest, and waste valuable court time and public money, than do what everyone agrees is necessary to protect us from the worst climate impacts and cut people’s energy bills,” a spokesperson for the group told Index.

“When political parties keep prioritising narrow private interests ahead of the lives, homes and security of its citizens the solution is to put people in charge through an emergency citizens’ assembly on the climate and nature emergencies.”

This is particularly alarming given the rise in environmental activists facing potential legal action. Hundreds of such campaigners in the UK have received legal threats, leading to claims that states and private companies are using the threat of costly legal action to silence critics.

Michel Forst, the UN special rapporteur on environmental defenders, has previously expressed concerns over the UK’s increasing intolerance of environmental protests, calling the new laws “regressive” and warning of the “chilling effect” they will have on free expression. This statement came in the aftermath of the infamous case of Just Stop Oil campaigners Morgan Trowland and Marcus Decker, who made history last year when they were handed the longest sentences for a peaceful climate protest in living memory. Both have been jailed for more than two and a half years after scaling a bridge on the Dartford Crossing, forcing its closure and causing gridlock for the traffic below.

The current ongoing conflict in the Middle East has increased concerns over protester safety. Since the outbreak of the Israel-Gaza war, weekly marches have taken place in the UK and have become a source of contention in the free expression world. Suella Braverman, for example, stated that waving a Palestinian flag “may not be legitimate” and encouraged a “strong police presence” in response. There have been hundreds of arrests during pro-Palestine protests since the conflict broke out, raising questions over the line between incitement and free speech. In December, nine people were arrested in London after displaying a pro-Palestine banner. Five people were arrested the month before for taking part in a peaceful sit-in at King’s Cross station after refusing to comply with an order to disperse.

This pattern of increasing police powers to clamp down on peaceful protest demonstrates a worrying break from usual democratic principles, which could have serious consequences for free expression in the state.

Anti-protest laws are not just gaining traction in the UK. Similar incidents have occurred in the USA, marking a worrying trend. Earlier this month, freelance journalist Reed Dunlea was arrested while covering pro-Palestine protests in New York. He was officially charged, confusingly, with resisting arrest, but no reason has been given as to why he was being arrested in the first place, particularly as his press pass and media equipment was on full display.

Freelance photographer Stephanie Keith told Index that she saw Dunlea’s arrest in progress as she was covering the protests, but that it wasn’t clear what he was arrested for.

“I was across the street documenting an earlier arrest when I saw a number of NYPD [officers] slamming a fairly large man onto the ground,” she said.

Keith has been covering the recent pro-Palestine protests in the USA and said she has noticed attitudes towards protesters changing in the last few months.

“The NYPD have been much more intolerant of the Palestinian protest in the last two months,” she said.  “Protesters used to be able to march in the streets and now if anyone sets foot in the streets, they are arrested.

“The police have a very different attitude towards the protesters now than they did at the end of last year.”

This incident was one of many to have occurred under New York Mayor Eric Adams, a pro-police candidate. During his term, misconduct complaints against the NYPD have risen to their highest levels in more than a decade.

Outside of New York, the police forces of other US cities have also displayed an increasingly hostile attitude towards protesters. Following the racial justice protests of 2020 that broke out after the murder of George Floyd, at least 19 US cities were made to pay settlements totalling more than $80m to protesters who sustained injuries as a result of law enforcement action.

If such a trend continues, the UK and US will have serious questions to answer over their treatment of protesters. One of the most fundamental concepts of any functioning democracy is the right to peacefully protest. The charge sheet of both the UK and the US is not looking good and we must make sure we don’t look the other way.

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