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Iran’s Regime Hangs Political Prisoner, Gauges International Response

Early in the morning of Wednesday, August 5, the Iranian regime carried out the execution of an activist named Mostafa Salehi. The charges against him stemmed from his participation in a nationwide uprising at the end of 2017 and the beginning of 2018. His hanging therefore stands as a symbol the regime’s ongoing commitment to stamping out anti-regime sentiment. And in the wake of social media campaigns to save other detainees from the noose, it is also a symbol of the regime’s resistance to both domestic and international pressure over such matters. 

The Iranian opposition president Mrs.  Maryam Rajavi reacted to the hanging by urging a further increase in such pressure. She described the execution as an example of the fundamentalist dictatorship trying to “terrorize the public and thwart the outbreak of any uprising.” The regime’s utter fear of an uprising and its desperate attempts to thwart could be seen in a variety of statements from high-ranking Iranian regime officials, including regime Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, warning of the possibility that additional widespread protests will emerge in the coming days, modeled on the January 2018 uprising. 

In the wake of that uprising, Mrs. Rajavi called on Iranian and the supporters of the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran and said that the entirety of 2018 should be made into a “year full of uprisings.” Activists in numerous localities obliged with recurring demonstrations that defied the authorities’ efforts at repression. Those protests helped to keep alive the slogans and demands that had defined the nationwide uprising. Among these were chants of “death to the dictator,” condemnations of both factions of the regime, and demands for a democratic alternative to the entire existing theocratic structure. 

The “year full of uprisings” ultimately set the stage for another movement that returned the same message of regime change to a national platform. The follow-up to the January 2018 uprising was even larger, encompassing approximately 200 cities and towns in a matter of only days. But the November 2019 uprising also eclipsed its predecessor in terms of the political violence to which it was subjected. While several dozen activists were killed in connection with the earlier movement, the regime’s Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) almost immediately began firing into the crowds last November, and thus killed upwards of 1,500 people. 

The immediate killings were supplemented by capital sentences for various activists who were either known or merely suspected to have been involved in the two sets of protests. And last week’s execution of Mostafa Salehi indicates that the crackdown has not yet ended for either uprising. But this should come as no surprise to anyone who is familiar with the Iranian regime’s human rights record and modus operandi. It is also a sign of the regime’s utter fear of another uprising.  

While the regime routinely maintains the world’s highest rate of executions per capita, it never seems to catch up on its backlog of prisoners, including political prisoners, whom it plans to kill at some point in the future. 

The day after hanging Salehi, the judiciary moved to uphold its death sentence for a Kurdish activist, Haider Ghorbani, in connection with activities dating from before 2016. Meanwhile, a participant in the 2019 uprising, Fatemeh Davand, was transferred to a new prison after having completed a five-month sentence, in order to begin serving a staggering five and a half years for the vague crime of “assembly and collusion against national security.” 

David’s back-to-back sentences, both stemming from the same event, are reminders of the arbitrary nature of the Iranian regime’s judicial process. Political prisoners routinely have their legal sentences extended after-the-fact, sometimes via the addition of charges that accuse the inmate of remaining politically active from behind bars. This can even lead to execution, as it did over 30,000 political prisoners in the summer of 1988 when authorities sought to stamp out dissent and set their sites in particular on members and supporters of the MEK. 

The regime has never changed its path and that historic massacre should be an object lesson for current circumstances, and particularly for the dangers posed by international silence in the face of escalating Iranian human rights abuses. Mrs. Rajavi highlighted this issue in her response to the Salehi execution, which she also cited as just one piece of evidence for an accelerating pace of politically motivated arrests and executions. Accordingly, she urged democratic governments, the United Nations, and human rights defenders throughout the world to formally condemn the latest crackdowns and also launch inquiries into the conditions in Iranian prisons today. 

Similar appeals reached the Western world via multiple channels in 1988, while the massacre of political prisoners was ongoing. But at the time, most policymakers declined to interject in Iran’s human rights situation and preferred their own economic interests over the lives of those prisoners. Now, it is disturbingly easy to imagine something happening on a similar scale in the near future, given that the Iranian regime killed 1,500 people with impunity in the midst of the latest uprising. 

As important as it is for the international community to be aware of this potential for mass bloodshed, it is equally important to keep in mind why that danger is so prominent. The 1988 massacre was sparked by a period of extraordinary vulnerability for the mullah’s regime. The recent upsurge in public expression of dissent has clearly brought that vulnerability back to the fore, making the mullahs desperate to stamp it out by any means necessary. 

Whether or not they are successful in that endeavor has a lot to do with how the international community reacts to the regime’s threats against its own people. The international community must end the impunity Tehran once enjoyed of the 1988 massacre. This will not only prevent the Iranian regime’s bloodsheds, but it will also help the Iranian people in their quest for freedom and democracy.