On Tuesday, the US Department of the Treasury announced new human rights-related sanctions against a dozen Iranian officials, as well as secondary sanctions targeting any companies or financial institutions that do business with those individuals. The basis for those sanctions included attacks on peaceful protesters and violations of due process related to the 2009 protests and the nationwide uprising that broke out spontaneously in the wake of gasoline price hikes in November 2019.
The latter uprising came less than two years after a similar movement that popularized explicit calls for regime change in well over 100 cities and towns. The 2019 uprising proved to be even larger and to involve a broader range of demographics, and thus inspired a panicked response from regime authorities. Security forces and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps opened fire on crowds of protesters almost immediately, and the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) later reported that the death toll from that crackdown exceeded 1,500 in a matter of only days.
This estimate was later confirmed by Reuters, citing sources from inside the Iranian Interior Ministry. Government officials also confirmed that at least 7,000 people were arrested during and immediately after the uprising. The NCRI estimates that the true arrest figures are roughly twice that, and human rights defenders have variously highlighted the dangers posed to peaceful activists by long-term detention by Iran’s judiciary.
At the time of that uprising, the judiciary was led by Ebrahim Raisi, who went on to be selected as the president of the Iranian regime in June 2021. His presidential campaign prompted many protests within the Iranian activist community and throughout the Iranian diaspora, based on leading roles in both the 2019 uprising and the massacre of 30,000 political prisoners during the summer of 1988.
Around the same time the new US sanctions were announced, a group of 100 Members of the European Parliament released a statement urging the European Union and its member states to recognize the 1988 massacre as a crime against humanity and an instance of genocide.
In 2020, Amnesty International released a report that detailed how Raisi’s judiciary had promoted a campaign of systematic torture against participants in the 2019 uprising, lasting several months. Immediately following the presidential “election” that brought Raisi to power the following year, Amnesty issued a statement that called that development “a grim reminder that impunity reigns supreme in Iran,” and suggesting that he should have instead been subjected to investigation for “the crimes against humanity of murder, enforced disappearance, and torture.”
Since before Raisi was confirmed for the presidency, some of the regime’s critics have been warning about the potential for his administration to accelerate various malign activities including crackdowns on dissent and abuses of human rights. Those warnings have arguably been substantiated over the past four months by phenomena such as the increase in Iran’s already world-leading rate of executions. At least 150 prisoners have reportedly been executed since Raisi took office in August, and additional death sentences have been issued for people accused of a broad range of “crimes,” including some who took part in the 2019 uprising.
It was recently reported that the family of Abbas Shelishat, also known as Abbas Daris, was verbally notified of his death sentence, in the wake of a legal process that apparently relied upon a forced confession elicited by torture. There has been no formal documentation of the death sentence, and this fact seemingly reflects the Iranian judiciary’s willingness to flout its own laws in order to achieve a pre-determined outcome, especially in politically sensitive cases. Abbas Daris and his brother Mohsen were accused of killing an officer in a police counterterrorism unit during the 2019 uprising, but serious doubts persist about the validity of the case, and the brothers’ advocates view the murder charge as a pretense for retaliation against their political activities.
In this sense, the Daris case is highly reminiscent of the case of Navid Afkari, a champion wrestler who took part in earlier protests and was similarly arrested alongside his brothers before being charged with, and ultimately executed for, the murder of a security guard. Afkari, like Daris, was allegedly tortured into confessing to the crime, only for evidence to later emerge which supported his evidence. In Afkari’s case, surveillance footage appeared to show that he could not have been present at the site of the murder at the time when it took place. Images from the 2019 protest showed that Daris was not armed and was facing security forces during clashes, while his alleged victim, Reza Sayyadi, was shot from behind.
There is little reason to assume that the court will vacate Daris’ death sentence even if his family manages to raise whatever sum of money is requested. The lack of documentation for that death sentence raises questions in this regard, which are reinforced by the fact that Daris was charged with “enmity against God,” meaning that the plaintiff in his case is the state, and not Sayyadi’s family. This would typically render diya inapplicable, but of course it would not exclude the possibility of the family collecting money on the state’s behalf, only for the court to then carry through with the death sentence anyway.
Javaid Rehman, the United Nations’ special rapporteur for the situation of human rights in Iran, expressed concern about this practice in a report last year, but in absence of serious pressure on the regime, the practice only seems to have accelerated. In recent weeks, the Ministry of Intelligence and Security has not only made threatening statements to activists and their families but has also summoned a number of them to court and re-arrested certain individuals who were released in the wake of the initial crackdown.
Most such arrestees can be expected to face a sentence of up to five years in prison for “assembly and collusion against national security.” The NCRI has cataloged many such sentences that have already been meted out over the past two years. But as the Abbas Daris case demonstrates, there is a substantial danger of the regime finding a pretense to hand down much longer prison terms or even capital sentences for participants in the 2019 uprising.
The impulse to do so will no doubt be strengthened in the wake of large-scale memorials for the crackdown’s victims, which coincided with the start of other protests over issues such as water shortages. These in turn sparked familiar crackdowns by regime authorities, with at least 300 people having been arrested during unrest in Isfahan alone. About 40 of those protesters were also apparently struck in the face by projectiles and left blind in at least one eye, but this only sparked further protest in the form of supporters posting images of themselves wearing eye patches to call attention to the authorities’ brutality.
The ongoing cycle of crackdowns and unrest arguably supports the prediction made in July by Mrs. Maryam Rajavi, the President-elect of the NCRI. At an online summit to promote freedom and democracy in Iran, she reacted to the news of Ebrahim Raisi’s appointment to the presidency by saying, “In the new era, the hostility and enmity between the Iranian regime and society will intensify more than ever before.”