Iran on Thursday executed two men accused of involvement in an armed anti-government group, as the public prosecutor announced that new death sentences have been issued against opposition activists involved in protests over June's disputed presidential election.
The White House quickly condemned Iran. Deputy press secretary Bill Burton said Thursday the executions represent a new low in Iran's crackdown on peaceful dissent and will further isolate Tehran.
The two men, who were hanged before dawn Thursday, did not appear to be connected to the postelection protests — at least one of them was arrested before the election, according to his lawyer.
But state media depicted the two as part of the protest movement, a sign of how the government has lumped together many of its enemies with the political opposition amid its postelection crackdown. The media's depiction of the executions may aim to intimidate the opposition ahead of new street demonstrations expected in February.
In a further move likely aimed at cowing protesters, Tehran's prosecutor announced that five people have been sentenced to death for involvement in the most recent major demonstrations, on Dec. 27. That day saw the worst violence of postelection crackdown, with at least eight people killed in clashes between police and protesters and hundreds arrested.
The new verdicts raise to nine the number of people sentenced to death for involvement in protests, said the prosecutor, Abbas Jafari Dowlatabadi.
He also announced that another group of the postelection detainees would go on trial on Saturday. He said the trial will demonstrate the role of "leftists, Bahais and those who were directed by foreign hands" in the postelection turmoil. He did not say how many new defendants would go on trial.
Iranian authorities regularly accuse the U.S., Britain and other foreign enemies of fueling the unrest in a bid to oust the country's clerical leaders. They have also accused followers of the Bahai faith, which is illegal in Iran because it is seen as heretical.
The two men who were executed, Mohammad Reza Ali Zamani and Arash Rahmanipour, were convicted by a Revolutionary Court of belonging to "counterrevolutionary and monarchist groups," plotting to overthrow "the Islamic establishment" and planning assassinations and bombings, Dowlatabadi told state TV.
He said the two confessed during the trial and that an appeals court upheld their death sentences. He made no mention of the postelection protests in connection to the case.
'Unfair and illegal'
Rahmanipour's lawyer, Nasrin Sotoudeh, told the Associated Press Thursday that the 20-year-old Rahmanipour was arrested in April on the charge of membership in an armed opposition group, the Royal Association of Iran.
She said his trial and verdict were "unfair and illegal," saying his lawyer was not allowed to participate in the court sessions and he was forced to confess. She said she and Rahmanipour's relatives had not been notified of any appeal's court ruling upholding the death sentences.
Iran's English language channel, Press TV, said that among the charges against the two was that they had a role in the 2008 bombing of a mosque in the southern city of Shiraz.
Still, state TV portrayed the executions as part of the postelection crackdown. In a report aired on the channel and reported on its Web site, it said Rahmanipour and Zamani were among those sentenced to death "in the wake of the rioting and counterrevolutionary and antiestablishment acts of recent months."
The opposition says President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won the June presidential election through fraud. Hundreds of thousands have poured into the streets in Iran since then on various occasions to support Ahmadinejad's main challenger, opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi.
Dozens of protesters were killed in the unrest and hundreds detained since June.
Iran has put on trial more then 100 political activists and figures since August. The defendants have included not only those directly involved in protests but also opposition politicians and writers — a sign that the leadership has used the turmoil as an opportunity to cast a wide net in pursuing its various opponents. More than 80 of those on trial have been sentenced to prison terms ranging from six months to 15 years.
Previously, authorities had said five of those on trial had been sentenced to death. The five more announced by Dowlatabadi should raise the total to 10, but he spoke only of nine. There was no explanation for the discrepancy, but it appeared to be a sign of how others — like Rahmanipour and Zamani — have been lumped in with the protest movement.
The charge of membership of armed groups opposed to the Tehran ruling establishment is widely taken to be a reference the Mujahedeen Khalq Organization, or MEK, and groups loyal to the Western-backed monarchy that was toppled by the 1979 Islamic revolution.
Iran has accused both groups of involvement in the assassination this month of an Iranian physicist.