ISTANBUL, Turkey — The first time Siamak, a private sector employee who participated in Iran’s post-election protests, witnessed a killing was last June, one day after Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei warned demonstrators he was escalating the government’s repression of street protests.
Siamak was out on the streets of downtown Tehran where groups of protesters seeking to link up with each other pelted the security forces with stones. Then, gunshots rang out.
“The first bullet hit an iron door and made a huge sound, the other got a guy near me on his arm, and the third one hit a middle-aged man in the chest and dropped him to the ground,” Siamak recollected as he sipped tea in an Istanbul cafe. He fled the country after several of his friends were arrested in Tehran in February.
“No one moved for three or four seconds,” Siamak said, remembering the shocked silence that temporarily blanketed police and protesters. “We didn’t even run.”
Ten people were killed that day, according to state-run television. It was the bloodiest day of clashes in the eight-month confrontation after Ashura, a nationwide religious festival during which 15 people lost their lives in clashes.
Human rights campaigners are calling these and other incidents “murder” and they are charging that Iran's rate of state executions is much too high. Iran refuses to allow independent human rights monitors to visit the country. (Read a Q&A with Amnesty International about how the use of the death penalty is decreasing worldwide.)
“It’s murder, even under Iranian law,” said Renee Redman, the executive director of the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center (IHRDC) which recently published a report on post-election abuses. “They’re breaking their own laws, using excessive force against largely peaceful demonstrators.”
Iran’s human rights record began deteriorating after President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came to power in 2005. Today Iran is second only to China in capital punishment — 270 people were hung in 2010 and another 12 so far in 2010. Total executions in the Persian year, which started on March 21, 2009, passed 440 according to the Mojahedeen-e Khalq (MKO) organization, a Paris-based opposition group whose tally is based on executions reported by state-run media.
On March 5, a U.S. State Department spokesman criticized “this disproportionate punishment” and urged Iran to free a student said to face the death penalty for participating in Ashura demonstrations.
Opposition websites reported that an appeals court confirmed a death sentence for 20-year-old Mohammad Amin Valian for "waging war against God" by throwing stones at security forces during December protests.
“The true number for executions is much higher as this does not cover the secret executions and the ones not reported by the media or people killed in streets by suppressive forces,” said Shahin Gobadi, a spokesman for MKO. “In the past, the clerical regime has executed many political prisoners as ordinary criminals and drug traffickers.”
Since Ahmadinejad’s controversial June re-election, beatings, shootings, mock executions, torture and rape have been increasingly documented both inside the Islamic Republic’s jails and in public.
In what Amnesty International describes as an “alarming spike,” 115 Iranians were executed in the two months after elections and up to 21 other activists are currently on death row. Verification is difficult because the authorities sometimes announce only the initials of those receiving death sentences. Eight prisoners had their death sentences commuted to life imprisonment in February.
“We’re seeing the regime use executions as a threat by making them very visible, said IHRDC’s Redman, who pointed out that although no one has been executed yet for participating in demonstrations, the regime’s heightened executions of what it describes as “drug smugglers” is suspicious.
“Even if the victims were all convicted of drug trafficking, that is not serious enough a crime under international law to warrant the death penalty.”
Ayatollah Makarem Shirazi, a staunch supporter of the Islamic Republic, reportedly called for demonstrators to be charged with "moharebeh" or “war against God,” a charge punishable by death. Referring to the showtrials, closure of pro-reform newspapers and restrictions on political parties, opposition leader Mir-Hossein Moussavi said at a press conference that Iran is being taken back “to the Inquisition era.”
“These are men who will speak out when they are released,” said an exiled Iranian prison supervisor who requested anonymity for discussing the advice he would offer interrogators questioning dissidents in jails operated by Iran’s SaVaMa security organization. “So they must either be struck in such a way that it won’t show, or they must not leave the prison alive.”
The Islamic Republic cracked down on the protests by arresting an estimated 5,000 people, several hundreds of whom were subjected to televised trials and issued with sentences ranging from internal exile to capital punishment. Human rights monitors doubt that all the estimated 200 people executed since the summer elections were guilty of the crimes of which they were convicted, such as drug-smuggling or seeking to overthrow the Islamic Republic.
Iran has continued to defy the international community’s condemnation of its human rights abuses record, most recently before the Human Rights Council in Geneva.
“We mustn’t think that all people live in Washington, Paris and London,” said Mohammad Javad Larijani, the Iranian representative. “Let’s imagine that there may be other ways of life. This is the slogan we have in Iran.”
“They just lie,” said Redman of the Iranians. “According to them, everyone is allowed to see their family, no one is harassed in prison, solitary confinement is used much less and people are not held for longer than 24 hours without being charged. We know that these are all lies.”
Still in Istanbul, Siamak spends his days in suspended animation checking news from home on his laptop. With his friends not released from jail and with Iranian authorities still asking family members where he is, he knows that he cannot risk returning home to face the Islamic Republic’s summary justice.