Explainer: Harsh Sentences for Iranian Protesters

During the first four months of protests, the government steadily escalated the pace of arrests and trials as well as the severity of sentences. More than 2,400 people had been convicted of crimes by late November and at least 1,100 others had been indicted, the judiciary said. Security forces detained more than 19,000 protesters by early January. Dozens faced the death penalty, mainly for the crimes of “corruption on earth” and moharebeh, or “enmity against God.” The pattern reflected a government desperate to counter unrelenting demonstrations, which erupted in all 31 provinces after the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini on September 16. Disparate branches of government took the following steps:

Mohsen Shekari
Mohsen Shekari was executed on December 8
  • Security forces—anti-riot police, Basij paramilitary, Law Enforcement Forces (LEF)—quickly employed physical force, including tear gas, batons and arms, to quell protests. Hundreds, including minors, were killed.
  • The judiciary handed down tough sentences, including lashings and multiple years in prison. On November 13, it announced the first death sentence.
  • In several speeches, President Ebrahim Raisi and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei called for tough measures to be taken against what they called “riots” inspired by foreign governments.
  • Parliament passed a resolution on November 6 calling for the judiciary to deal harshly to stop the demonstrations and “in a way that would serve as a good lesson in the shortest possible time.”

 

Charges

Protesters faced various charges, from misdemeanors to serious felonies, but many were vague and “catch-all national security charges,” Jasmin Ramsey, deputy director of the Center for Human Rights in Iran, told The Iran Primer. “These charges are fabricated, and they don’t use evidence. When you get caught up in Iran’s judicial system, you’re guilty with no chance of being proven innocent.”

The vague wording of Iranian laws has allowed for broad interpretation and application by judges, human rights groups claimed. For example, protesters could be charged with “corruption on earth” for disturbing public order by “spreading lies.” The following is a list of charges filed by the judiciary and with the potential sentences according to a translation of the Iranian penal code by the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center:

 

• Chanting against the leadership: Sentences can range from six months to two years in prison for anyone who insults the founder of Iran, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, or Supreme Leader Khamenei. Sentences can also include 74 lashes or a fine of 50,000 to one million rials for anyone who insults government officials and organizations.

 Propaganda against the state: Sentences can range from three months to one year in prison for anyone who “engages in any type of propaganda” against Iran or supports opposition groups.

 Communication with opposition and counterrevolutionary media: Sentences can range from three months to one year in prison for anyone who “engages in any type of propaganda” against Iran or supports opposition groups. In November, the Majles drafted legislation to allow death sentences for anyone who sends footage of unrest to foreign outlets, reported Iran International, a London-based Persian television network critical of the regime.

 Disrupting public order: Sentences can range from three months to one year in prison and up to 74 lashes for anyone who “disrupts order and public peace” by “crying out and creating a row” or “assaulting other people.”

 Injuring security officers: Sentences can range from three months to three years for “any form of attack or resistance” against officials “while they are performing their duties.”

  • Incitement: Sentences can range from one to five years in prison for anyone who “encourages people to war with one another” with the “intent to disrupt national security.”
  • Assembly and collusion to act against national security: Sentences can range from:
    • Two to five years in prison when at least two people “collude and conspire to commit crimes against national/foreign security” or “prepare facilities” for the crimes.
    • Two to 10 years in prison for anyone who forms or runs a “group, society, or branch” that “aims to perturb the security of the country.”
    • Three months to five years in prison for anyone who joins such groups.
  • Destruction of public and government property: Sentences can range from three months to ten years in prison for anyone who destroys or damages “tools and facilities used by the public,” such as water pipes, electricity and communication lines, or traffic signs. For destruction of buildings, houses or factories, for example, they can also range from two to five years in prison.
  • Cooperation with hostile governments: Sentences can range from one to 10 years in prison for “anyone who cooperates by any means” with foreign countries against Iran.
  • Murder: Sentences can range from three to ten years in prison if the murder “disrupts the public order and safety of the society” or further “emboldens the offender or others.” Murder can also carry the death penalty.
  • Armed rebellion: Carries the death penalty if weapons are used. It is a crime regarded as “enmity against God.”
  • Corruption on earth”: Carries the death penalty when activities involve “severe disruption in the public order,” “harsh damage” to people or properties, or “distribution of corruption and prostitution on a large scale.” Crimes include:
    • “Felony against the bodily entity of people.”
    • Harming Iranian internal/international security.
    • Spreading lies.
    • Disturbing the Iranian economy.
    • Destroying property.
    • Distributing poisonous/bacterial/dangerous items.
    • Forming or assisting “places of corruption and prostitution.”
  • Enmity against God”: Sentences can include the amputation of the right hand and left foot; banishment; or the death penalty. Crimes include:
    • “Drawing a weapon on the life, property, or chastity of people” or to “cause terror” by creating an “atmosphere of insecurity.”
    • Robbery, thievery, or smuggling with weapons that disrupts “public security or the security of roads.”
    • Armed rebellion against the state (carries the death penalty for anyone who uses their weapons).

During the first three months of protests, the government used the Revolutionary Court system to “terrify people,” as it has since the 1979 revolution, Ramsey said. The revolutionary courts were created after the ouster of the monarchy to persecute adversaries of the new Islamic Republic. In the late 1980s, President Raisi was on a four-man “death commission” that sentenced an estimated five thousand political prisoners to death. In 2021, Iran executed more than 300 people, the second highest number of executions worldwide, after China.

In 2022, the charges on protesters were handed down in “show trials,” where defendants were denied due process, including a lawyer of their choice, Ramsey said. Detainees were often coerced into confessing publicly. The court system carried out “politically motivated sentencing to silence dissent and crush opposition,” she added. Even teenagers and minors faced execution for alleged crimes during the demonstrations.

Instead of stifling unrest, the harsh sentencing and the threat of execution only further inflamed the protest movement. “Think of how many people are being permanently hurt and tortured by this—mothers screaming in the streets for their children,” Ramsey said. “They’re not backing down. People are still coming out into the streets.”

 

Executions

The following is a list of the protesters who have been executed:

Mohsen Shekari: The café worker in Tehran, accused of “enmity against God,” was hanged on December 8. Shekari was charged with blocking a street and assaulting a security officer during demonstrations in late September. He was the first protester to be executed.

Majidreza Rahnavard: The 23-year-old, accused of “enmity against God,” was publicly hanged in Mashhad on December 12, less than a month after charges were brought against him. He was charged with killing two Basij paramilitary members during mid-November unrest.

Mohammad Mehdi Karami: The 22-year-old karate star, accused of “corruption on earth,” was hanged on January 7. Karami was charged with killing a Basij paramilitary member at a protest in early November.

Seyed Mohammad Hosseini: The 39-year-old poultry farm employee, accused of “corruption on earth,” was hanged on January 7. Hosseini was charged with killing a Basij paramilitary member at a protest in early November.

 

Death Sentences

At least 14 protesters had been sentenced to death as of early January. The following is a list of a few of those individuals:

Mohammad Boroughani: A Revolutionary Court sentenced the 19-year-old to death in November for “enmity against God.” Boroughani was tried along with Mohammad Ghobadlou, Saman Seydi Yasin, and at least three other men in late October. In mid-January 2023, his sentence was reportedly suspended for further review by the Supreme Court. He had allegedly set fire to a government building and injured a police officer.

Mohammad Ghobadlou: A Revolutionary Court sentenced the 22-year-old barber to death between late October and early November for “corruption on earth.” Ghobadlou also reportedly faced a second death sentence for the same charges in a Tehran criminal court. On December 24, the Supreme Court rejected his appeal. He had allegedly run over a group of security officers with a car in September—one was killed and five others injured. At the beginning of February 2023, Ghobadlou’s death sentence was suspended to allow the family of the dead security officer to ask for or reject retribution.

Mahan Sadrat Madani: A Revolutionary Court sentenced the 22-year-old to death on November 3 for “enmity against God.” Madani’s sentenced was suspended and his case was reportedly sent to the Supreme Court in mid-December. He had allegedly attacked someone with a knife, set fire to a motorcycle, and damaged a cell phone in October.

Sahand Nour Mohammadzadeh: A Revolutionary Court sentenced the 25-year-old bodybuilding star to death in December for “enmity against God.” He was also accused of assembly and collusion to act against national security as well as disrupting public order. In late December, the Supreme Court accepted his appeal and returned his case to the Revolutionary Court. He had allegedly destroyed highway railings and set fire to trash cans and car tires in late September.

Manouchehr Mehman Navaz: A Revolutionary Court sentenced the 45-year-old to death in mid-November for “enmity against God.” He was also accused of assembly and collusion to act against national security and disrupting public order. He had allegedly set a government building and six cars on fire.

Saman Seydi Yasin: A Revolutionary Court sentenced the 24-year-old Kurdish rapper to death weeks after he was detained in October for “enmity against God.” He was also accused of assembly and collusion to act against national security. On December 24, the Supreme Court accepted his appeal and returned his case to the Revolutionary Court. In late January 2023, Yasin was reportedly transferred to an unknown location from Rajai Shahr Prison. He had allegedly fired a gun in the air at a protest. He had allegedly fired a gun in the air at a protest.

 

International Outrage

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken in a tweet on December 8: “We are appalled by the execution of #MohsenShekari. Our message to Iran’s leadership is clear: End this brutal crackdown. We will continue to hold the Iranian regime accountable.”

U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan in a tweet on December 8: “The unjust and cruel execution of #MohsenShekari is a cynical attempt to intimidate the brave Iranian people. Our hearts are with his family.  We will hold the Iranian regime accountable for the brutal violence it’s committing against its own people. #MahsaAmini

U.S. Special Envoy for Iran Robert Malley in a tweet on December 8:#MohsenShekari's execution after a sham trial is a grim escalation in the regime's attempt to suppress dissent. We continue to coordinate with allies and partners to confront Iran's human rights abuses.”

The United States and Canada in a joint statement on December 9: “Canada and the United States are united in condemning the Islamic Republic of Iran’s brutal acts of violence against peaceful protestors and its ongoing repression of the Iranian people.  We also condemn Iran’s pervasive oppression and state-sponsored violence against women.  While these are longstanding concerns, the Iranian authorities’ intensification of violence against the Iranian people following the death of Mahsa “Zhina” Amini calls for consequential responses from all corners of the world.

“Today, we have taken coordinated sanctions actions against Iranian officials connected to human rights abuses, including those committed as part of the ongoing brutal crackdown aimed at denying the Iranian people their human rights and fundamental freedoms.  Our sanctions come as Iran’s leadership continues to perpetrate violence against its people without relent.  Security forces reportedly have killed hundreds of peaceful protestors, including dozens of children, and have arbitrarily detained thousands of Iranians in their effort to silence the people of Iran.  We are gravely alarmed by recent reports that Iranian authorities are using sexual violence as a heinous means of protest suppression.  Iranian courts have also now begun issuing harsh sentences to advocates and protestors ranging from lengthy prison sentences to the death penalty.

“We are united in our support for the brave people of Iran.  Together, we remain committed to finding more ways to impose costs on the perpetrators of human rights abuses against Iranians.  Everyone in Iran should have the right to freedoms of expression and peaceful assembly, and the Iranian regime must end its use of violence against its own people simply for exercising those rights.”

European Union in a statement on December 8: “Today, 23-year old Mohsen Shekari was executed after being arrested and sentenced to death in connection with the ongoing protests in Iran. The European Union condemns his execution in the strongest possible terms.

“The EU urges the Iranian authorities to refrain from applying the death penalty and carrying out any future executions, and to pursue a consistent policy towards the abolition of the death penalty altogether.

“We call on the Iranian authorities to refrain from the unacceptable practice of using forced and publicised confessions as a basis for ascertaining the facts of alleged crimes. It is imperative for the Iranian authorities to uphold the accused individuals’ due process rights and ensure that those who are under any form of detention or imprisonment are not subject to any form of mistreatment.

“The EU appeals to Iran to strictly abide by their obligations enshrined in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Iran is a party. Fundamental rights, including the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, must be respected in all circumstances. 

“The EU reiterates its firm and principled opposition to the use of capital punishment at all times and in all circumstances. The death penalty is a cruel and inhumane punishment, which fails to act as a deterrent to crime and represents an unacceptable denial of human dignity and integrity. Furthermore, it is a definite punishment that makes possible miscarriages of justice irreversible.”

Vice President of the European Parliament Pina Picierno in a tweet on December 8: #MohsenShekari, one of the boys arrested in the Iran protests, was hanged this morning. It is the first insane death sentence carried out on a protester in Iran. You will find us on the side of freedom, on the side of the protesters. Always.”

French Foreign Ministry in a statement on December 8: “France utterly condemns today’s execution of an Iranian man who was sentenced to death following his participation in ongoing protests in Iran. His execution is yet another instance of the serious, unacceptable violations of fundamental rights and freedoms committed by the Iranian authorities.

“France reiterates its unwavering opposition to the death penalty everywhere and in all circumstances. France remains resolutely committed to the universal abolition of this unjust, inhumane punishment.

“France reiterates its commitment to the freedom to protest peacefully and its strongest possible condemnation of the crackdown against Iranian women and men who are engaging in protests. Their aspirations toward greater freedom and the respect of their rights are legitimate and must be heard.”

German Foreign Minister Baerbock
German Foreign Minister Baerbock

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock in a tweet on December 8 (translated): “The Iranian regime's inhumanity knows no bounds. #MoshenShekari was sentenced & executed in a perfidious summary procedure because he disagreed with the regime. But the threat of execution will not suffocate people's desire for freedom.”

British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly in a tweet on December 9: “Yesterday, #MohsenShekari was brutally executed by the regime. In response to this, the UK has summoned the Iranian Charge d’Affaires. Today we have sanctioned Iranian court judges and prison officials linked to the oppression of protesters.  We must hold Iran to account.”

Israeli government in a tweet on December 8: “23-year-old Mohsen Shekari had his whole life ahead of him. This morning he was executed by the Iranian regime for protesting against their violent crimes against innocent Iranians. The world must condemn Iran’s gross abuse of human rights. May Mohsen’s memory be a blessing.”

Norwegian Foreign Minister Anniken Huitfeldt in a statement on December 8: “Norway condemns the execution by Iran of one of the detainees that were arrested during the ongoing protests. We call on Iran to immediately halt executions, and to end the repression of fundamental freedoms. We oppose the use of the death penalty in all circumstances.”

Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs in a tweet on December 8: “Appalling news of the execution of Iranian citizen #MohsenShekari, accused of armed assault against a regime enforcer during a protest. The Iranian regime uses outrageously disproportionate penalties to instill terror in its population. [The Czech Republic] resolutely opposes the #deathpenalty.”

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk in a press release on January 10, 2023: “The weaponization of criminal procedures to punish people for exercising their basic rights – such as those participating in or organizing demonstrations - amounts to state sanctioned killing.

“The Government of Iran would better serve its interests and those of its people by listening to their grievances, and by undertaking the legal and policy reforms necessary to ensure respect for diversity of opinion, the rights to freedom of expression and assembly, and the full respect and protection of the rights of women in all areas of life.

“I reiterate once more my call to the Government of Iran to respect the lives and voices of its people, to impose an immediate moratorium on the death penalty and to halt all executions.

“Iran must take sincere steps to embark on the reforms that are required and demanded by their own people for the respect and protection of their human rights.”

U.N. Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Iran Javaid Rehman in an interview with VOA’s Persian Service on December 8 (excerpts): “My reaction is absolutely horrified, shocked, and outraged at Mohsen Shekari’s execution, the news of which broke this morning. He was executed by the Revolutionary Court, which found him guilty of moharebeh [waging war against God]. The Revolutionary Court violates all of the rules of due process and fair trial.

U.N. Special Rapporteur Rehman
U.N. Special Rapporteur Rehman

“Shekari was tortured and forced to confess. And if you consider the trial and the execution, it took less than two-and-a-half months, which unfortunately also reflects the authority's determination to generate a sense of fear amongst the people of Iran and in particular the protesters.

“It seems certain that he was denied access to a lawyer. He was made to confess, and there was a determination on the part of the judiciary that includes the Revolutionary Court and the Supreme Court to sentence individuals to the gravest possible punishment. And in this case, it is the death penalty.

“The international community has been rightly horrified and shocked. The news has outraged all of the world, and there has been condemnation of the execution of this young protester. The international community has to take very seriously this threat, that the Iranian authorities would execute more protesters. They are trying to instill and generate fear amongst the people of Iran and the protesters, and it shows also a complete disregard of international human rights law, the values of human rights.

“It also shows a complete disregard of the Human Rights Council resolution adopted in the special session on the 24th of November, which established a fact-finding mission to ensure accountability. The Iranian authorities are trying to create this atmosphere of tension and hostility with the rest of the world community, and they are deliberately violating and breaching international human rights law.

“It's a very tragic and unfortunate day in the history of Iran. It is a tragic day for human rights, for people who believe in human rights, rights of protesters and rights of people. I would urge the international community and I would urge member states of the United Nations to take individual as well as collective action. One way would be for member states of the U.N. to talk to the Iranian ambassadors and their counterparts in their countries. It's a matter of human rights. It's a matter of human dignity.

“Some states have better relations, so they can actually have a dialogue with them. Others can still exert pressure. The international community should exert pressure. I would urge the United Nations General Assembly and the Human Rights Council to again take note of this very serious, unfortunate development and take all possible action that is within the power of international law to exert pressure so that we do not see a repeat of what we have seen today in the form of another execution of a protester.”

 

 

Photo credit: Shekari via Center for Human Rights in Iran; Baerbock via German government website; Rehman via U.N. website
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