5 More Executions and What They Mean

This Sunday, May 9th, Iran executed five political prisoners for moharebeh (enmity against God). As Iran-watchers know, executions are nothing new in Iran. The Islamic Republic ranks second behind China in this dubious category. What is disturbing is that these five executions add to the other two similar cases of political prisoners executed since last year’s election, and come within a month of its one year anniversary.

So what exactly were these “crimes against God” that warranted death by the state’s hand? Four of the five persons executed–Farzad Kamangar, Ali Haydarian, Farhad Vakili, and Shirin Alam-Houli–were Kurds and accused of being members of the banned Free Life Party of Kurdistan (PJAK), an Iranian offshoot of the Turkey-based PKK. They allegedly confessed to being active in PJAK and taking part in several bombings in northwest Iran. The fifth person, Mehdi Eslamian, was charged with membership in an obscure monarchist group, the Kingdom Assembly of Iran, and taking part in a bombing of a Shiraz mosque in 2008. (Interesting note: the previous two political prisoners executed for moharabeh crimes were also accused of membership in this group, and Iran is apparently raising a stink about US support for this group out of Los Angeles).

Even by Iranian judicial standards, the trials of the five and their subsequent executions were carried out with utter disregard for legal procedures. To cite just a few examples given from an interview by a lawyer for two of the prisoners:

  • In Kamangar’s case, his initial trial and appeal process had no jury. His appeal trial lasted only 10 minutes. When lawyer asked to present his defense he was told to write it down, as the judge had to leave for daily prayers.
  • The accused had scant access to their lawyers and their families during their time in prison and leading up to their trials.
  • The five were said to have ‘confessed’ to membership in terrorists groups. But there is evidence, including letters smuggled out from prison from several of the executed, that they were tortured in prison and their confessions were forced. Alam-Houli wrote that she was drugged and beaten. Kamangar reported physical torture and threats of sexual abuse.
  • Neither their families nor their lawyers knew about executions until after they had taken place. The law requires lawyers to be notified about executions ahead of time.
  • According to Iranian law, the Supreme Court must approve all death sentences. In these five cases none were approved by this body.

So why the sudden, unannounced executions? Were they sending a message to potential protestors ahead of planned rallies on June 12th? Or were they simply further iterations of an unfortunately prevalent pattern of executions of political prisoners–particularly among ethnic activists? Two of DC’s most abrasive Iran analysts (and I use the term loosely) see nothing politically targeted in these executions. Putting aside their typically self-aggrandizing polemical style, they do make some points that are worth noting. If the regime intended for these executions to send a message, why not execute people accused of moharebeh crimes stemming from post-election activities? Several people have been convicted of such crimes and are awaiting execution, so why not them?

These are good questions to raise, but you also can’t take the decision to summarily execute five political prisoners–whether arrested before the election or not–in a political vacuum given the current environment in Iran (the Leverett’s would undoubtedly claim all is well in Iran, and the talk of crisis is unjustified, but that opens an entirely new jar of sumaq). The five were arrested, charged, and finally executed with moharebeh crimes not just for alleged membership in terrorist groups, but for “acting against Iran’s national security.”  These phrases have been thrown around time and time again by hardliners in condemning protestors and the opposition leaders. Somehow I doubt people thinking about taking to the streets next month are breathing a sigh of relief or feeling any safer knowing that the five just executed were charged with crimes that happened before last June.

The political effects of these executions have not been lost on the government either. Several family members of the five have been arrested, and none of the bodies have been able to be viewed or buried yet. Protests and strikes were planned in Kurdish areas of Iran, as well as the capital, and some predominantly Kurdish cities were placed under heightened security presence. Families have been pressured not to take part in any protests, and some political prisoners have gone on hunger strike out of solidarity. Opposition leaders have come out and condemned the executions, while state media has played down but repeated claims that those executed were terrorists from foreign-backed groups.

Regardless of what was meant by the executions, 5 more political prisoners are dead. If this was meant to scare the opposition, it doesn’t seem to be working. In a repeat of the May Day protest at Tehran University over Ahmadinejad’s surprise visit and speech, students at Shahid Beheshti University protested a similar unannounced speech earlier this week. They chanted things like “students would rather die than give in to disgrace” and “where is your 63%?” Of course this is a far cry from the millions who took to the streets 11 months ago, but spontaneous demonstrations such as these show the will still exists to go back to the streets.

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One Response to “5 More Executions and What They Mean”

  1. One Week After the Executions « HGU's Blog Says:

    […] HGU's Blog Thoughts on Iran « 5 More Executions and What They Mean […]

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