Activists Hope for Challenges to Iran Regime’s Impunity, Following a Year of Escalating Abuses


Written by
Mansoureh Galestan

Symbolically, 2021 was another devastating year for human rights in Iran. The month of August saw the formal inauguration of Ebrahim Raisi as the nation’s president, following his appointment two months earlier through a tightly controlled and sham electoral process that the vast majority of Iran’s eligible voters refused to participate in.

That electoral boycott was accompanied by an array of public protests which called attention to Raisi’s personal history of human rights violations. These were unsurprisingly met by violet repression, which also followed a number of other protests that were held throughout the year with a focus on various specific issues of concern.

When Raisi was confirmed as president in June, Amnesty International issued a statement calling it a “grim reminder that impunity reigns supreme in Iran,” and suggesting that Raisi should have been subjected to investigation for “the crimes against humanity of murder, enforced disappearance, and torture,” instead of ascending to the presidency. These allegations primarily stemmed from Raisi’s participation in two crimes against humanity, one in 1988 and the other much more recent, in 2019.

In the first place, the current president served as one of four officials on the Tehran “death commission” during the summer of 1988, when approximately 30,000 political prisoners were systematically executed in accordance with a fatwa from then-Supreme Leader Ruhollah Khomeini which deemed organized opposition to the theocratic system an example of “enmity against God.” Details of his involvement were exposed to an international audience over the course of 2021 as a perpetrator of that massacre, former Iranian prison official Hamid Noury, faced trial in Sweden on the basis of “universal jurisdiction” over serious violations of international law.

Dozens of survivors of the 1988 massacre, most of them members of Iran’s leading democratic opposition group, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK), testified in Noury’s trial, which is expected to conclude in April with the first ever criminal conviction for a known participant in the massacre. Many of the eyewitnesses specifically recalled interactions with Ebrahim Raisi, and some emphasized that he showed even greater commitment than his colleagues to the goal of executing dissidents and political prisoners in large numbers, to stamp out dissent.

Noury’s looming conviction could help the year 2022 to counter the symbolism of Raisi’s presidential appointment, and in fact advocates for human rights in Iran have held out hope that the Swedish court case will spur a broader inquiry into the 1988 massacre and the abysmal human rights record of leading Iranian officials. The MEK’s parent coalition, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), held multiple conferences on this topic in the wake of Raisi’s “election,” and explicitly called upon the International Criminal Court to prosecute Raisi, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, and Judiciary Chief Gholamhossein Mohseni-Ejei.

Mohseni-Ejei ascended to his position on the basis of having served as Raisi’s deputy when the latter held the position of Judiciary Chief between 2019 and 2021. In that capacity, Raisi played a leading role in the crackdown on dissent that followed a nationwide, anti-regime uprising in November 2019. The crackdown saw approximately 1,500 Iranians killed in mass shooting incidents over a period of just several days, after which point thousands of arrests were made and detainees were subjected to systematic torture in numerous facilities over a period of several months.

On the basis of prior abuses, both historic and recent, the NCRI was quick to warn that Raisi and Mohseni-Ejei would most likely oversee further acceleration in crackdowns on dissent and inhumane conduct by the government and the judiciary more generally. Various indicators over the past several months seem to have borne out this prediction, with increases in the rate of executions being a prime example.

In 2020, Iranian activist groups and sources within Iranian prisons identified at least 269 instances of capital sentences being carried out. In the final days of 2021, the estimate for that year stood at 350, and that figure was widely expected to continue climbing after the end of the year, on account of the sometimes slow pace whereby human rights activists confirm independent reports of hangings in Iranian prisons. In each year, only a small portion of the total number of executions was officially reported by the Iranian judiciary, in line with a long traditional of secrecy in matters of human rights and judicial proceedings.

As well as raising its annual rate of executions by about a third over the past two years, the regime also increased its monthly rate immediately following the promotion of Raisi and Mohseni-Ejei. During the first half of the year, the average for known executions each month was less than 27, but for the months following the June election, that average reached as high as 40. Furthermore, the increases took place in spite of the expanded international attention brought to the issue by the Noury trial, the NCRI conferences, accompanying discussions of the 1988 massacre, and persistent conditions of social rest in Iran.

Notable examples of that unrest appeared in Sistan and Baluchistan Province in February following attacks on impoverished porters by the Revolutionary Guard Corps, in Khuzestan Province amidst widespread blackouts in July, and in Isfahan in November, when farmers were facing serious water shortages exacerbated by dam projects that benefited the IRGC in particular. The February clashes between border populations and security forces reportedly resulted in at least 40 fatalities; the summer protests were met with automatic weapons fire; and in November additional protests broke out among the general population after it was reported that about 40 farmers had been blinded in at least one eye after being shot at close range with “non-lethal” projectiles.

In these and other cases, the deaths of certain protesters became the launch pad for further human rights abuses and crackdowns on dissent. The year 2021 saw numerous instances of Iranian authorities harassing the families, friends, and colleagues of deceased activists, often by openly attacking and disrupting funeral gatherings or memorial ceremonies.

In fact, this was the extension of longstanding practices which date back to the aftermath of the 1988 massacre, during which many supporters of the nation’s leading opposition group were buried in secret mass graves. The regime has built upon some such graves in an effort to prevent memorial gatherings, and has disrupted planned gatherings with police action. Similar practices were adopted in the immediate aftermath of November 2019 uprising, with some families reporting that they were either denied access to sites where their loved ones were buried by the states, or else subjected to mistreatment and abuse when they attempted to buried a protester on their own.

Even more of this abuse was reported around the second anniversary of the 2019 uprising .

In early 2021, a leaked footage from inside Evin Prisons howed prison authorities abusing detainees, serving them inedible food and otherwise contributing to conditions harsh enough to drive some of those detainees to attempt suicide.

Much of the content of the Evin Prison leak was contemporary, as evidenced by the fact that guards were wearing face coverings as protection against Covid-19 outbreaks. Although it elicited a rare apology and statement of intent to reform by the Prisons Organization, no recognizable progress toward such reforms had been made as of December, more than four months after the footage was first released.

The ongoing crackdowns on dissent and the escalating rate of executions are seemingly indicative of the regime’s resistance to both domestic and foreign pressure over its human rights situation. Foreign pressure has come in the form of multiple statements by United Nations human rights experts and a new human rights resolution adopted by the General Assembly. But little to no concrete action has been taken to hold Iran accountable for its disregard of those statements.

In November, the UN Human Rights Office condemned the execution of Arman Abdolali, who was under the age of 18 at the time of his alleged crime and was therefore not a viable target of capital punishment under international law. Earlier pressure over this case presumably prompted the judiciary to delay Abdolali’s execution, but this only resulted in him being transferred to solitary confinement in preparation for that execution six times over two months, thereby adding to his psychological torture.

The ensuing statement called upon Iranian authorities to “halt all executions of child offenders and immediately commute the death sentences against them, in line with the country’s international obligations.” But numerous such statements have gone ignored in the past, and the following month it was reported that another juvenile offender, Hossein Shahbazi, was at imminent risk of execution. Additionally, on December 24 it was reported that yet another juvenile offender, Abolfazl Shaabani, had died in Amol Prison under suspicious circumstances, thus raising the possibility that the four known juvenile executions in 2021 might only be a portion of the de facto total.

Iran has the overall highest per capita rate of executions in the world and is among only a handful of countries that still routinely execute persons who were under 18 at the time of their alleged crimes.

For critics of the regime, this remains a clear sign of its impunity – an image that has only intensified over the past year with the installation of notorious human rights abusers to the nation’s top positions and the continuation of widespread crackdowns on dissent for which no official has yet been held accountable.


Activists Hope for Challenges to Iran Regime’s Impunity, Following a Year of Escalating Abuses

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