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Emboldened Iran silences critics as world looks elsewhere

In the shadow of the Israel-Gaza war Iran's rulers are settling scores with internal critics. Women who refuse to wear the headscarf are being severely punished, activists are persecuted and prisoners have been executed.



As least 690 prisoners were executed in Iran in 2023, as of December 1, according to the human rights organizations Center for Human Rights in Iran and the Oslo-based Hengaw Organization for Human Rights, whose data was based on official Iranian statistics.

However, rights organizations believe a considerable number of unreported executions have been carried out hidden from the public eye and often only come to light years later, when bereaved relatives have the courage to speak out.


"The world is distracted by the Gaza war. The Islamic Republic of Iran is taking maximum advantage of this situation to crack down on its critics, especially with executions that I would characterize as state murder for revenge, and to intimidate society through violence," Saeid Dehghan, an Iranian human rights activist, told DW.

Dehghan, who has lived in Canada since 2022, has founded a worldwide network of Iranian lawyers. He heads a legal center called Parsi Law, which provides legal advice to people in Iran. The center also supports international organizations, such as UN bodies, in their efforts to improve human rights in Iran. 


"The sad reality is that as soon as the streets in Iran are emptied of protesters, the country is forgotten and the global community returns to business as usual with the Islamic Republic," said Dehghan. 

"Human rights activists understand that every country worldwide pursues its own interests. Nevertheless, the massive oppression in Iran must not be ignored. Especially not by politicians in Western countries, where human rights are one of the fundamental principles of politics," he added.


Iran cracks down on women's rights movement

At least eight people who were arrested during nationwide women's rights demonstrations under the slogan "Woman, Life, Freedom" have been sentenced to death in sham trials and executed in recent months.

One of them was 21-year-old Milad Zohrevand. On November 30, he was executed without warning, and without the opportunity to say goodbye to his family. According to human rights activists, Zohrevand was not allowed access to a lawyer or family visits during his imprisonment. 


"Slaughter and killing do not only happen in war," wrote imprisoned Iranian Nobel Peace Prize laureate Narges Mohammadi in a letter to UN Human Rights Commission.


In this open letter, which Mohammadi's husband shared with DW, she asks the UN human rights commissioner to take urgent, decisive and swift action to stop executions in Iran. 

"In this world where everything is globalized, is humanity an exception? Is it enough to make a statement on paper? Is the global will to stop the unsafe and widespread executions in Iran's cities paralyzed by empty and baseless excuses?" Mohammadi wrote.

Since December 3, Iranian authorities have cut off all of Mohammadi's connections with the outside world. She is not allowed to make phone calls or receive visitors. Her voice, and that of other critics, has been silenced. 


On December 2, Iranian rapper Toomaj Salehi was arrested several days after being released from prison. The judiciary justified the arrest with statements he made in a video allegedly "spreading lies and violation of public opinion." 

The musician had posted a video sharing details of how he had been arrested and harassed. Salehi was initially arrested for showing solidarity with the nationwide women's rights protests in the fall of 2022, and was later sentenced to six years in prison.


No space for free speech in Iran

Journalists and media professionals in Iran are under enormous pressure not to publish any critical articles. 

At the end of November, the public prosecutor's office in Tehran took legal action against the newspaper Etemad, which is cautiously critical of the government. 

The newspaper had published a secret document showing an excerpt from a ministerial directive for "arrests" and "other measures" against women who refuse to wear the obligatory headscarf in public.


According to the document, the duties of Iran's "morality police" include taking photos and videos of women to ensure dress code compliance in the "metro areas," including "inside the wagons." 

The newspaper published this document after Iran's interior minister claimed on November 22 that female morality watchdogs are citizens who want to "fulfill their religious duties and prohibit evil." 

The last victim of this ostensible religious sense of duty was a 16-year-old schoolgirl, who was on her way to school at the beginning of October and wasn't wearing a headscarf. According to a source who spoke with the British newspaper The Guardian, she was attacked by a morality police officer on the subway. 

Instead of going to school that day, she fell into a coma and was taken to hospital. She later died and was buried at the end of October.

This article was originally written in German.


Second publication by courtesy of DW

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