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Iran doubles down on a tactic to crush unrest: death sentences and executions


Three months into the protests in Iran, the government is doubling down on an alarming tactic to crush the unrest - death sentences and executions.


Several people have already been sentenced to die, and at least two executions have been reported in recent days. This comes after the death of a 22-year-old Kurdish woman in the custody of the so-called morality police in September. The woman, known Jina or Mahsa Amini, was detained for what the police called improper attire.

MARTÍNEZ: NPR's Peter Kenyon joins us from Istanbul, where he's been following the developments. Peter, so what do we know about how these death penalties are being doled out and who the defendants are?

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Well, the trials have been closed, but there has been widespread attention paid to the two executions that have been carried out to date. Twenty-three-year-old Majidreza Rahnavard was hanged from a crane in a very public execution, and it came less than a month after he was arrested and convicted of killing two security guards. Earlier, Mohsen Shekari, also 23, who'd been convicted of wounding a security guard with a knife, was executed as well. The State Department denounced the executions. The spokesman, Ned Price, said the harsh sentences, quote, "simply just underscore how much the Iranian leadership actually fears its own people." A Norway-based rights group says at least 20 protesters are facing charges that could result in a death sentence. That's based on official Iranian reports. And one rights group estimates the death toll is now approaching 500 people.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah, there have been thousands of arrests as well, so how does the government plan to deal with these detainees?

KENYON: Well, the estimates are in the 15,000 range when it comes to those arrested so far. With numbers this large and information so scarce, it's not really possible to draw any firm conclusions about how the government intends to deal with the detainees. But rights groups have warned that there's every reason to be concerned about a wave of death sentences being handed down and carried out. And we should point out that the defendants so far were not allowed to retain their own lawyers, and their state-appointed attorneys reportedly did little to defend them, while prosecutors have relied on so-called confessions that critics say were obtained under duress or torture.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah, the thing is, though, with crackdowns underway, I mean, protests are still happening, right?

KENYON: Yes, they are. A post to Twitter this week said the governor's office in a town near Mashhad, in northeast Iran, was set ablaze in retaliation for the execution of the two young men, Mohsen Shekari and Majidreza Rahnavard. General strikes have occurred. They've caused widespread closures in commercial areas. Analyst Sanam Vakil at the U.K.-based Chatham House think tank told me that the unrest is reaching what she considers an inflection point, with the Islamic government determined to send what she calls the starkest message possible. She believes Iran will continue to execute demonstrators who receive the death penalty. She says the government is, in essence, trying to scare people off the streets with these public executions. But she also says, so far, it doesn't necessarily seem to be working, especially among younger Iranians. Here's a bit of what she told me.

SANAM VAKIL: First of all, I think young people see this as one of the few opportunities they have to push for change, if not regime change, and that's why the protests have not been fully stamped out. This is, you know, a once-in-their-lifetime opportunity.

KENYON: Now, she also says, however, there have been signs of demonstrations getting smaller or happening less frequently, if at all, in certain parts of Iran. However, overall, these protests have shown remarkable longevity, and they're seen by some as the biggest threat to the clerical regime in decades.

MARTÍNEZ: That's NPR's Peter Kenyon. Peter, thanks a lot.

KENYON: Thank you, A. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.