‘Adopt’ an Iranian Political Prisoner to Save a Life
The regime kills much more easily in darkness.
Three months into the latest round of protests in Iran, at least 100 protesters are at risk of execution. The Islamic Republic of Iran has already executed four protesters and arrested more than 18,000 others, including students, physicians, shopkeepers, and mothers. Their plight demands sustained outside pressure on the regime from the global human rights community, average citizens, and certainly, lawmakers.
The regime is implementing a no-holds-barred policy against protesters. Members of Iran’s parliament, judiciary officials, and Friday prayer imams threaten demonstrators and prisoners. Tehran has prosecuted detainees on trumped-up charges like “waging war against God” and “corruption on Earth” that the regime deploys against Iranians who challenge its legitimacy or radical Islamist ideology. These carry the death penalty.
So far, the Islamic Republic has executed Majid Reza Rahnavard, Mohsen Shekari, Mohammad Hosseini, and Mohammad Mehdi Karami. From court date to punishment, the legal process for the executions took a very short time. The executions came after show trials using coerced confessions elicited under torture, a frequent tactic of the regime. Pictures of Rahnavard before his execution show a severe injury on his hand that he sustained while in custody.
Furthermore, thousands of imprisoned protesters and dissidents face the prospect of long-term prison sentences. Fatemeh Sepehri, a dissident who previously served nine months in jail after calling for Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s resignation in 2019, was arrested on September 21 and has been in jail since then. Before her arrest, in a TV interview, Sepehri had said, “Wake up, people of Iran! Why are we still silent? What are we waiting for?”
Many journalists have also been imprisoned by the regime. Niloufar Hamedi, who broke Mahsa Amini’s story, and Nazila Maroufian, who interviewed Mahsa’s father, are both in prison. The regime has falsely accused Hamedi and her colleague of being foreign agents. Without international pressure, Sepeheri, Hamedi, Maroufian, and others may wrongly spend years in prison.
This is already happening to others. The revolutionary court sentenced dissident writer and scholar Mojgan Kavousi to five years and five months in prison for insulting the supreme leader and other charges. Saeed Sheikh, a lawyer, has been sentenced to three years in prison for what the court refers to as propaganda against the Islamic Republic. Sheikh was arrested in front of the Iran Bar Association in Tehran while protesting the crackdown on peaceful protesters.
Amir Reza Hosseini, arrested in October during a student protest, was charged with “assembly and collusion against national security” and sentenced to forty-one months in prison. Saeedeh Mohammadi was sentenced to five years in prison for “assembly and collusion” and “propaganda against the Islamic Republic.” She was arrested in September after participating in a peaceful protest.
Among the prisoners at immediate risk of execution is nineteen-year-old Mohammad Boroughani. Judge Abolghassem Salavati, known as “the hanging judge” and sanctioned by the United States for human rights violations, sentenced Boroughani to death for allegedly attacking the city hall of Pakdasht and injuring a government official during the protests. The judiciary has charged another prisoner, Saeed Shirazi, with corruption on Earth, which carries a death sentence. The regime did not accuse him of killing or injuring anyone. His alleged crime? Sharing a post on Instagram that showed how to make a Molotov cocktail. A Google search would yield a similar result.
The Islamic Republic is known for its excessive use of the death penalty. Between October 2021 and October 2022, Iran had the highest per capita execution rate in the world, killing 528 people by execution. The most notorious executions were the thousands of political prisoners killed in 1988. Ebrahim Raisi, today the sitting president of the Islamic Republic, sat as a member of the so-called “death committees” that sentenced the political prisoners to death.
Washington must intervene. Shining a light on individual political prisoners can deter the regime from going on an execution spree. European lawmakers have begun a “political adoption” campaign in which they spotlight Iranian political prisoners, particularly ones who unjustly face the death penalty. In so doing, the parliamentarians seek to ensure that Iranian voices and stories echo from world capitals to Tehran. Members of parliament in Germany, Austria, Sweden, and Belgium have participated in this campaign. Nine Canadian Parliamentarians have also adopted nineteen political prisoners.
Some argue that political adoption of prisoners by high-ranking officials of the “Great Satan” would endanger those prisoners. This concern is unwarranted. Those who receive international attention often receive better treatment from the regime. For example, noted human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh has reportedly been on medical leave from prison for an extended period. International pressure has likely deterred the regime from returning her to jail to serve what was an unjust sentence to begin with. In contrast, other prominent political prisoners such as Manouchehr Bakhtiari and Soheila Hejab, who have not received significant international media coverage, are targets of constant harassment in prison. Both were beaten, despite their poor health. International pressure works.
Similarly, the judiciary recently sentenced twenty-two-year-old Mahan Sadrat-Madani to death for waging war against God by allegedly pulling out a knife during protests. His execution was halted after a massive public campaign to save his life. Mahan and his family deny the allegations.
The regime also stopped the execution of Saman Seydi, a singer, whom the regime accused of waging war against God for allegedly firing three pellets in the air during protests. There was no accusation of harm done to anyone.
The Islamic Republic’s judiciary often prevents protesters from choosing their own lawyers. Sometimes protesters are even precluded from speaking with their lawyers. Moreover, their lawyers are not always provided access to the cases against their clients. The revolutionary court told Hossein Ismail Beigi, Seydi’s lawyer, that Seydi does not need him as the court appointed him a lawyer. Judge Salavati had sentenced Seydi to death, but an upper court sent the case back to Salavati after a public outcry.
The fifty-three-year-old Hamid Ghareh Hasanlou, a doctor and philanthropist, was sentenced to death in December for his unsubstantiated role in the death of a member of the Basij, a terrorist organization sanctioned by the United States. The Iranian authorities reportedly beat Hamid in front of his teenage daughter. They threatened to kill her parents if she revealed what she saw. In custody, five of his ribs broke as they tortured him into falsely confessing. His lung was punctured as well. There are reports that the sentence has been withdrawn after a campaign by physicians around the world.
All three could have faced Mohsen Shekari’s fate absent international outrage.
The rushed trials, lack of credible evidence, widespread use of torture, depravation of the right for prisoners to choose their lawyers, and the denial of regular contact between protesters and their families underscore the regime’s aims: terrorizing its population into submission through intimidation. In the words of dissident wrestler Navid Afkari, who was unjustly executed in 2020 on trumped-up charges, the judiciary is looking for a neck for its noose.
The regime kills much more easily in darkness. Members of Congress tweet that they stand with the Iranian people. “We hear you. We see you,” they say. It’s time for them to build upon this rhetoric by naming those Iranian prisoners whom they hear and see—and whom the regime wants to stifle. By adopting a political prisoner, members of Congress can save many lives.
Toby Dershowitz is senior vice president for government relations and strategy at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where Saeed Ghasseminejad is senior Iran and financial economics advisor. Follow them on Twitter @TobyDersh and @SGhasseminejad. FDD is a Washington, DC-based nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.
*Editors note: This article was updated on January 9, 2023, to reflect the additional executions that have taken place in Iran.