Iran under the rule of mullahs has consistently maintained its status as the country with the world’s single highest rate of executions per capita. No other country apart from China, with its population of over a billion, exceeds Iran’s raw number of judicially-sanctioned killings each year. In 2020, Iran also took on the distinction of being one of the only countries to maintain its prior pace of executions in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.
According to one recent report by the Iran Human Rights Monitor, the total number of executions carried out in Iran last year was at least 267. This is very much in line with the figures recorded for 2018 and 2019, which were 273 and 280, respectively. In any event, as the Iran HRM report points out, the totals for any given year are only estimates, as the Iranian judiciary only formally announces a portion of the death sentences it implements.
In 2020, that portion was only about a third of the total, or 91. The others are only known to the world outside of Iran’s notorious prison as a result of efforts by human rights activists and the populations of those facilities, especially their political wards. Still other executions may go unreported or least remain unconfirmed by more than one independent source. Thus, the true number is likely higher than what is reported internationally in any given year, even if one avoids factoring in incidents that amount to informal executions through targeted abuse and denial of access to medical care.
Naturally, this latter issue became even more important over the past year, with prisons in Iran and various other countries becoming well-recognized hotbeds for the spread of Covid-19. In Iran’s case, the government made a show of announcing that it would be releasing tens of thousands of non-violent offenders, but it only released a few and the political prisoners had been categorically excluded from the furlough arrangements.
This came as little surprise to persons familiar with the Iranian prison system or the clerical regime’s penchant for human rights abuses. In reports published over the past several weeks, the National Council of Resistance of Iran has called attention to the plight of various individual detainees like Saeid Sangar, who has not been granted a single day’s furlough in more than 20 years, and Fatemeh Mosanna, who has been transferred to hospital during particularly severe health crises but has been returned to her cell in each case before she was able to receive a full course of treatment.
These stories are very commonplace in Iran and are seemingly becoming more so as regime authorities develop an even greater obsession with ruling by fear and stamping out expressions of dissent within a highly restive society. Apart from excessively restrictive conditions of imprisonment, the common feature linking Sangar, Mosanna, and various other recently-highlighted cases is a prior connection to the leading Iranian opposition group the People’s Mohahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI-MEK).
Since shortly after the 1979 revolution, the MEK has been the most prominent challenge to the theocratic system, and the most popular voice for a democratic future in the country. In 1988, the regime’s founder Rohullah Khomeini attempted to definitively silence that voice by issuing a fatwa that declared MEK members and other committed opponents of his regime to be at war with God and thus subject to summary execution. In the summer of that year, “death commissions” in various Iranian prisons began interrogating political prisoners over their views and affiliations, then ordered the immediate hanging of those who failed to demonstrate fealty to the supreme leader. Over the course of several months, over 30,000 people were killed.
Since then, the charge of “enmity against God” has continued to be employed as a means of securing capital sentences for MEK members and other prominent activists. Taking these executions together with the 1988 massacre, targeted assassinations at home and abroad, and direct clashes between Iranian authorities and “Resistance units,” the MEK finds that it has lost more than 100,000 members to the mullahs’ political violence. It is understandably concerned that current trends point to this number growing substantially unless the international community takes action to confront Tehran’s overuse of the death penalty and its disregard for the fundamental rights of prisoners, especially political prisoners.
As much as those features of the regime represent a constant threat to pro-democracy activists and ordinary Iranians throughout the country, they also reveal the regime’s own vulnerability, which has grown more apparent in recent years. Since shortly after the 1988 massacre, authorities have tried to continue promoting propaganda narratives that depict the MEK as marginal, weakly organized, and lacking in popular support. But in January 2018, this narrative was blown up by none other than the regime’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who acknowledged that a then-ongoing uprising had largely been facilitated by the MEK.
Various other warnings about the group’s influence followed, and these turned out to be prescient in November 2019, when Iran was rocked by another nationwide uprising that spanned nearly 200 localities and demonstrated popular embrace of the MEK’s platform of regime change. Recognizably panicked over the recurring challenges to its rule, the regime endeavored to stamp out the second uprising by any means necessary and so the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps opened fire on crowds of protesters and killed at least 1,500.
This set the stage for ongoing repression that would last throughout 2020 and continue right up to the present day. Last September, Amnesty International published a report detailing much of the torture that arrestees were still being subjected to as part of an effort to secure forced confessions regarding the uprising and associated acts of anti-government activism.
That report, Trampling Humanity, closely preceded the Iranian judiciary’s execution of Navid Afkari, a champion wrestler who had become the object of countless international appeals after it was revealed that he had been falsely accused of murder in order to justify executing him for participating in another protest. His hanging was a clear sign of the regime’s disregard for international public opinion – something that had previously been demonstrated many times over through the recurring execution of juvenile offenders and a general refusal to recognize international human rights standards.
This intransigence continues in the wake of popular uprisings and coronavirus outbreaks, which the regime has called it a blessing in order to make large-scale organizing more difficult. And the latest estimates suggest that the judiciary carried out upwards of 30 executions in January alone, putting it well on its way to exceeding last year’s total. In order to avoid that or an even worse outcome, the international community must take immediate action to halt the current trend while also addressing the Iranian regime’s unresolved crimes against humanity.
At a minimum, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights must demand free access for inspection of Iranian prison facilities, and the UN Security Council must take up the file on Tehran’s four decades of unlawful executions and human rights violations.