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What to Know About Protesters Facing Execution in Iran

In September, a 22-year-old woman named Mahsa Amini died three days after being taken into custody by Iran’s morality police. Since Amini’s death, protesters have taken to the streets to demand a change in Iran’s leadership and an end to gender discrimination and state impunity for weeks. Now, Iranian authorities are cracking down on those taking part in the protests, leading to violence and the deaths of protesters.

But a false claim that Iran plans to execute 15,000 protesters went viral on social media this week. The message took hold when various tweets and infographics began circulating, including one image which read, “Iran sentences 15,000 protestors to death as a ‘hard lesson’ for all rebels.”

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While the claim is not accurate, major public figures including Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, as well as actors Viola Davis and Sophie Turner, shared the post on their social media.

The problem is that, while Iran’s parliament, or majlis, voted to urge the death penalty for protesters, it’s not up to them. Iran’s Judiciary metes out punishment, and answers not to the parliament but to Iran’s unelected Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Here is what the parliament actually voted on; the latest numbers on imprisonment and death; and how the world is responding.

How many protesters have been arrested so far?

While numbers are difficult to verify due to the lack of independent reporting in Iran, 15,915 protesters have been detained and 351 have been killed since the protests began, according to the latest figures by the Human Rights Activists News Agency, or HRANA. On Nov. 3, Javaid Rehman, the special Iran human rights rapporteur to the United Nations, also told the U.N. Security Council that some estimates of detained protesters were as high as 14,000 people, as reported by CNN.

Who are some of the notable arrests?

The arrested protesters include Toomaj Salehi, a rapper whose music urged rebellion; Iranian journalists Niloofar Hamedi and Elahe Mohammadi, who helped break the story of Amini; and Hossein Ronaghi, a prominent blogger and activist who went on a hunger strike to protest his arrest.

Hamedi and Mohammadi have been held in Tehran’s Evin prison complex since late September, while Ronaghi’s family say they have lost contact with him since he was transferred to a hospital, alleging that both his legs were broken while in jail.

Read More: How Iran’s Morality Police Enforces a Strict Interpretation of Islamic Law

What did Iran’s parliament vote on?

Two weeks ago, 227 members of Iran’s 290-seat Parliament signed an open letter to the country’s judiciary asking it to issue death sentences for those protesters who had been arrested, as first reported by Iran’s state-run news agency IRNA. In a statement, Iranian lawmakers called for the severe punishment of those who incited riots and called them “mohareb.” In Islamic or Sharia law, “mohareb” means “Enemy of God” and carries with it the death penalty.

How many executions have taken place so far?

None. But Mizan, a news agency in the country, reports that three protesters have so far been sentenced to death in Tehran by Iran’s revolutionary court since the movement erupted. The first sentence was handed down to a protester who was charged with disturbing public order and peace after being accused of setting fire to a government building. The issued sentences are preliminary and can be appealed, but on a per-capita basis, Iran executes more people than any other country in the world.

What’s the status of other protesters?

Uncertain. On Sunday, Mizan also reported that five other unnamed defendants were sentenced to up to 10 years in prison for violating national security and disrupting public order. These sentences can also be appealed. Last week, Judiciary Chief Gholam Hossein Ejei issued a statement claiming that the protesters had “disturbed the security of people, disrupted their livelihood and insulted their sanctities” and would be dealt with “firmly and strongly based on law and fairness,” according to the official Islamic Republic News Agency.

Legal experts say that in Iran, it is impossible to seek justice for those killed, or for detained protesters to receive fair trials. Lawyers often don’t have the freedom to defend clients tried under political charges and sometimes face false accusations themselves. The judiciary itself is not independent–often, political and religious trials are determined by intelligence agents and agents of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp, according to Shirin Ebadi, a Nobel peace prize laureate who was formerly a judge in Iran. Rights groups also allege that detainees are often forced or tortured into providing false confessions based on fabricated evidence during sham trials.

Read More: What Success of Women-Led Protests Say About Iran’s Future

How is the world responding?

"Women Life Freedom Collective" Hold Iran Solidarity Protest
Maja Hitij—Getty ImagesProtestors attend a rally organized by the “Women Life Freedom Collective” in solidarity with protesters in Iran on Oct. 22, 2022 in Berlin, Germany.

Last week, the U.N. Human Rights Council issued a statement calling on Iran to stop using the death penalty as a tool to squash protests and to immediately release protesters. “We fear that women and girls, who have been at the forefront of protests, and especially women human rights defenders, who have been arrested and jailed for demanding the end of systemic and systematic discriminatory laws, policies and practices might be particularly targeted,” they said.

More than 40 countries are supporting a proposal by Germany and Iceland for the Human Rights Council to hold a special session on human rights in Iran. The German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, strongly criticized the Iranian government and said Germany stood “shoulder to shoulder with the Iranian people.”

On Monday, French President Emmanuel Macron said the crackdown by Iranian authorities was “unprecedented,” calling for “a strong diplomatic reaction and sanctions” on those responsible for it. Similarly, the European Union and Britain announced further sanctions against Iranian officials and entities involved in repressing protesters. British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly said in a statement that the sanctions send “a clear message to the Iranian regime” that “the violent crackdown on protests must stop and freedom of expression must be respected.” Urging Tehran to end the repression, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said in a statement that “The EU strongly condemns the unacceptable violent crackdown of protesters.”

What is the history of executions in the country?

Iran executes more people than any country except China–since 2010, 6,885 individuals have been executed by the Islamic Republic, typically by hanging, according to the Iran Human Rights Organization. Most of those executed are convicted of murder and drug-related offenses. Last year, Iran put 333 prisoners to death, including at least two children and 10 women.

Capital punishment has deep ties to the regime. In 1988, thousands of political prisoners were executed under Ebrahim Raeesi, the current President of Iran who was its judiciary chief at the time, and the Islamic Republic’s late founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Human Rights Watch said the mass executions amounted to crimes against humanity and are among the most odious crimes in international law.