The Iranian government hanged a 23-year-old prisoner on Thursday, the first execution it has announced of a person accused of involvement in the protests that have engulfed the country for the past three months. He was one of 11 protesters who have so far been sentenced to death.
The man, Mohsen Shekari, was accused of blocking a street in Tehran and of attacking a member of the Basij militia with a machete, forcing him to get 13 stitches after a protest, according to the Mizan news agency, which is overseen by the country’s judiciary.
Mr. Shekari was arrested on Sept. 25, and sentenced on Nov. 20 by Iran’s Revolutionary Court, a special court for political cases and political prisoners, the agency said. He was accused of “moharebeh,” or waging war against God, a charge that carries an automatic death sentence.
His execution — along with the speed with which it occurred after his sentencing — was taken as a clear signal that the government was escalating its efforts to intimidate protesters calling for an end to the system of authoritarian clerical rule that has been in place since 1979.
“Iranian authorities have executed a protester, sentenced to death in show trials without any due process,” Mahmood Amiry-Moghaddam, the director of Iran Human Rights, an Oslo-based activist group, wrote on Twitter. He said that the execution should be met with “STRONG reactions” from the international community, and that “otherwise we will be facing daily executions of protesters.”
Sanam Vakil, the deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa program at Chatham House, a London research institute, said Iran’s leaders were sending a very direct message. “This could signify the apogee of its toleration,” she said. “Up until now the system sees itself as having shown restraint, but this execution could be the end point to that.”
More on the Protests in Iran
- A Women-Led Uprising: Casting off their legally required head scarves, Iranian women have been at the forefront of the demonstrations.
- Show of Support: From World Cup soccer players to movie personalities, high-profile Iranians are increasingly making public gestures of support for the protests.
- Suppressing Protests: Witness accounts and a Times video analysis reveal how Iran’s security forces are co-opting ambulances to infiltrate demonstrations and detain protesters.
- Struck Blind: Across Iran, hundreds of protesters have suffered severe eye injuries inflicted by the metal pellets and rubber bullets that security forces fire to disperse crowds.
Iran’s police chief, Hossein Ashtari, said on Thursday that “the police will not show restraint in dealing with security threats,” according to ISNA, the Iranian student news agency.
A heavily edited six-minute video, posted by Mizan after the execution, shows Mr. Shekari walking down a hallway with what appeared to be a limp. In excerpts from his testimony, he is seen holding a cigarette or wielding a knife, re-enacting his attack. According to the Mizan report, Mr. Shekari admitted to blocking an intersection in the Sattar Khan neighborhood in Tehran with a companion, named Ali, who handed him the machete and offered him money if he stabbed a security officer.
It was not possible to independently verify the official account of the incident.
Sharyar, a protester who was held in prison before being released, said in a series of tweets that he had met Mr. Shekari during his incarceration. “Mohsen Shekari loved life — he was waiting for his freedom,” he wrote, describing his fellow inmate as a “quiet young man” who had been working at a cafe in Tehran when he decided to join the protests. Mr. Shekari had hoped that his harsh sentence would be softened to 10 years in prison, Sharyar said.
Activists, lawyers and ordinary Iranians immediately took to social media to condemn the execution, saying Mr. Shekari was denied his access to a lawyer through his interrogations and legal proceedings. Prominent Iranian athletes and celebrities also denounced the government’s use of the death sentence.
Navid Mohammadzadeh, a well-known actor in Iran, said in an Instagram post that tagged Mr. Shekari’s name, “Nothing washes off blood.”
“Your silence means supporting oppression and oppressors,” a renowned Iranian actress, Taraneh Alidoosti, wrote in a post, urging others to speak out.
Mr. Shekari’s death drew swift condemnation from rights groups and government officials around the globe.
“The Iranian regime’s contempt for humanity is limitless,” said Germany’s foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock, in a tweet. “But the threat of execution will not stifle people’s will for freedom.”
One of the European Parliament’s vice presidents, Pina Picierno, called the hanging “the first insane death sentence carried out on a protester in Iran.”
Amnesty International said it was “horrified” at the execution, saying it came less than three weeks after “a grossly unfair sham trial,” and called on the government to “stop using the death penalty as tool of political repression against protesters in their desperate attempt to end the popular uprising.”
More than 18,000 people have been arrested in the protests, according to rights groups. Many have been tried by the Revolutionary Court on “moharebeh” charges.
The court is known for holding closed-door trials and obstructing the right to a fair trial by not allowing defendants to choose lawyers or by withholding evidence, rights groups say.
“Most are charged in revolutionary courts that lack legitimacy and are deprived of their right to legal representation,” Nasrin Sotoudeh, a human rights lawyer and former prisoner, wrote on Facebook on Tuesday.
Diana Eltahawy, Amnesty International’s deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa, wrote in a report last month that 21 people were at risk of receiving death sentences over the protests.
“Two months into the popular uprising and three years on from the November 2019 protests, the crisis of impunity prevailing in Iran is enabling the Iranian authorities to not only continue carrying out mass killings, but also to escalate the use of the death penalty as a tool of political repression,” Ms. Eltahawy said in the report.
A parliamentary statement cited by Amnesty, signed by 227 Iranian lawmakers, called on the judiciary to “show no leniency” to protesters by slamming them with swift death sentences as “a lesson” to others. The head of the judiciary, Gholamhossein Mohseni-Ejei, who has repeatedly called for speedy trials and sentences, confirmed on Monday that the trials were being dealt with “in a very short period of time,” according to Mizan.
The execution of Mr. Shekari brought an ominous close to three days of nationwide strikes, one of the largest demonstrations of mass protest in Iran in decades, in a sign of intensifying pressure on the government. In the Kurdish city of Sanandaj, a 21-year-old protester, Houman Abdullahi, was killed late Wednesday by security forces, according to the rights organization Hengaw.
Mr. Shekari’s death also came days after Attorney General Mohammad Javad Montazeri said the country’s feared morality police had been “abolished,” according to the state news media — a move that has been neither confirmed nor denied by the government.
Iran has ranked as one of the world’s most frequent users of the death penalty for years. In July, Amnesty International said the Iranian authorities were believed to have killed at least 251 people in the first six months of 2022 — the equivalent of more than one a day. Rights groups put the toll much higher, saying it had now surpassed 500, “the highest rate in five years.”