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'They want to create fear': Struggling to crush unrest, Iran turns to public executions

Many activists and analysts believe the Islamic Republic is using the death penalty to terrify demonstrators into silence.
Iranians protest in Tehran on Oct. 27 after the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini.
Iranians protest in Tehran on Oct. 27 after the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini.AP

LONDON — Iran’s government has spent months violently cracking down on protests gripping the country. Now it has started hanging people in public — an approach some demonstrators and experts see as a desperate attempt to crush the dissent that has posed an unprecedented challenge to the clerical regime.

The first known executions of people arrested over the months of protests prompted an outcry from Western governments and human rights activists, but they came as little surprise to those involved in the demonstrations or carefully watching from afar.

“They want to create fear for the people who are involved,” Saeed, a business owner in his 30s from Tehran who is very active backing the protests on social media, said by voice note. As with all those interviewed for this story inside Iran, NBC News is identifying him only by his first name to avoid possible retaliation by the regime.

“They want to show the public that their actions will not go unpunished and that there are rules in the system,” he added, and so “families stop their children from going out to protest.”

Last Monday, officials publicly hanged a man from a construction crane in Mashhad, according to Mizan, a judiciary-run news agency. Majidreza Rahnavard was accused of “waging war on God” after he was accused of stabbing to death two members of the pro-government Basij militia in the northeast city. Human rights groups and Western governments say Iran’s judicial system is based on sham trials behind closed doors. 

A week earlier, Iran executed another man, Mohsen Shekari, alleging he blocked a road in Tehran and stabbed a pro-government militia member who required stitches. Around a dozen other people have been sentenced to death, according to human rights groups. 

“The regime knows it is fighting for its life,” said Abbas Milani, the director of an Iranian studies program at Stanford University. In the past, the regime has been “busy simply containing” demonstrators, he added. “Now they need to put the fear in people’s hearts again.”

Executions by hanging are far from rare in Iran, which Amnesty International says put 314 people to death last year, the most in the world after China. 

But many activists and analysts alike believe the Islamic Republic is using the death penalty to terrify demonstrators into silence, after other attempts failed to quell the most significant wave of dissent since its founding revolution in 1979.

“This is very standard playbook by them; they have done this at previous protests” said Ali Ansari, a professor of Iranian history at St. Andrews University in Scotland. But this time, “if anything, they are moving quicker now to execute protesters with sham trials that even their own side are criticizing.”

Expatriate Iranians Protest Against Recent Executions In Iran
A photograph of Majid Reza Rahnavard among candles during a demonstration in Berlin on Dec. 12.Sean Gallup / Getty Images

Some protesters say the regime may also be using executions to shore up its own supporters and reduce the risk of dissent in its ranks by showing it will deal severely with alleged crimes against members of the security forces and the pro-government militia.

“It’s like they want to tell their security agents that, ‘See, we are not letting people get away with harming you in any way,’” Saeed said.

Yan, of Tehran, an aspiring filmmaker in his 30s who was also involved in the demonstrations, said: “Some members of the Basij and security forces have died, and the regime thinks that it is their duty to take revenge. Blood for blood, an eye for an eye, this is the mentality of the regime. This means that for each and every one of their security forces who dies, they will be hanging a protester by the neck in retaliation.”

The executions have been met with a variety of emotions among Iranians at home and abroad. “My sense is one of shock, resignation and enhanced determination,” Ansari said.

Saeed said he was so despondent when he heard about the first execution last week that he was lying in bed all morning unable to move. “I woke up in the morning and saw the news,” he said. “I sat still and silent in my bed for two hours and turned off my phone and went to sleep again from sheer sadness.” 

The feeling soon turned to rage, he said, coupled with a renewed fearlessness about the prospect of being jailed now that some had lost their lives.

“I must admit that I was afraid of being jailed before these executions, but now, I am thinking that I could tolerate it,” he said.

“There is no gray area left anymore” between the protesters and authorities, he added. “Either you are with the people on the side of justice or against them on the side of cruelty.”

Many people are terrified by the executions, but Saeed said that with fear comes unpredictability, which he said is a potential danger for the regime.

“Angry and scared is much more dangerous than just angry, and that is how people feel,” he said. “When you are scared and angry, you do things that are unexpected.”

The unrest broke out in mid-September, when a Kurdish woman, Mahsa Amini, 22, died in a hospital three days after she was arrested by the country’s morality police, which accused her of breaking the country’s strict dress code. A three-day nationwide strike this month saw daily life across this country of 85 million grind to a halt, and there has been a push on social media for another strike this week.

In all, at least 475 people have been killed and 18,000 others have been arrested, according to the Washington area-based watchdog group Human Rights Activists in Iran. Iran’s Interior Ministry said this month that the death toll was 200, including security forces who were killed.

“The Iranian authorities are adamant on continuing their killing spree, both on the streets and through sham trials,” Diana Eltahawy, Amnesty International’s deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa, said in a statement after Shekari was executed. “The clear aim is to instill fear among the public in a desperate attempt to cling to power and end the popular uprising.”

Amnesty has tallied 12 people it says are facing the death penalty related to the protests and five more who face trial or have been charged with crimes carrying the death penalty. Rahnavard was the sixth.

Many of those involved in the uprising say that even if the judicial killings continue, they will remain undeterred.

“Revolutions have consequences, and we need to pay the price for freedom,” Yan said. “Unfortunately, that sometimes means losing lives.”