Iran: Political opponents face execution

Press release
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Tehran Prosecutor Abbas Ja’fari-Dolatabadi told the official Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) on Friday 8 January 2009 that five people arrested in connection with the events on Ashura, 27 December, have been charged with moharebeh (fighting God) and would soon stand trial before the Islamic Revolution Court.

He alleged that the five were members of the People’s Mujahedin Organisation of Iran (PMOI, an opposition group abroad) and contended that they were guilty of "organising the offences committed on Ashura and effective efforts to deconstruct [the system] that constituted clear cases of moharebeh." The Tehran prosecutor also indicated that "a number of other people are under investigation for the same charge of moharebeh." This is a strong charge, which could carry the death sentence under the Islamic Penal Code (IPC) in Iran.

The IPC defines a mohareb (a fighting person) as follows: "Any person resorting to arms to cause terror, fear or to breach public security and freedom will be considered as a mohareb and to be corrupt on earth." Furthermore, it classifies armed robbers and highway robbers to be moharebs. Judges have the power to choose from four punishments for moharebeh (fighting presumably the state): execution, crucifixion for three days (not entailing death), amputation of the right hand first and then of the left foot, and banishment. They often opt for the death penalty, in particular in political cases.

Various statements made by the Iranian authorities since 30 December clearly indicate that the defendants, who face a high risk of being executed, have not been charged in a fair judicial process and are quite unlikely to get hearings that would meet the international standards of fair trials. The following are some examples of declarations that unambiguously point to the extreme politicization of those trials and illustrate the authorities’ decision to further intensify the campaign of terror against peaceful protesters.

On 30 December, Ayatollah Alam ul-Hoda, addressing a state-organised pro-government rally in Tehran, set the tune: "Today enmity with God’s prophet means enmity with his manifestation, i.e. the Supreme Theologian [Ayatollah Khamenei]." Then the national police chief commander, Ahmadi Moghaddam, who is neither authorised nor qualified to make judicial proclamations, said on the same day that actions of the protesters were moharebeh. Perhaps worst of all was the remarks of the state Prosecutor-General Hojjatoleslam Mohseni Eje’i on 30 December. According to daily Etemad on 31 December, he said during a closed session of the parliament that "the Judiciary is seriously determined to execute at least three detainees of the Ashura events who have been found to be moharebs." Thus, he pronounced the actual punishment even before defendants were tried. According to Iranian Labour News Agency, on 4 January, the state Prosecutor-General Mohseni Eje’i also made the following vaguely worded claim: "The punishment of those who rise against righteousness, as rebels, is the death sentence." On the same day, 36 pro-government MPs tabled a motion with the parliament seeking to reduce the period required for implementation of "moharebeh sentence from 20 days to 5 days." If made into law, it would effectively deprive the defendants of their right to appeal.

During and after the events on Ashura (27 December), marking the commemoration of one of the most important Shiite martyrs, Imam Hossein, in year 68 AD, hundreds of thousands, if not millions, took to the streets to continue the mass protests that started after the disputed presidential election of 12 June 2009. The authorities reported that more than 300 people had been arrested and 8-15 people had lost their lives, denying that the security forces had carried or used firearms on that day. Opposition sources put the numbers at far more than 1,000 detainees and at least 38 deaths in Tehran. The detainees, many of whom were arrested after the events, from their homes, included political leaders and activists, such as the 78-year-old Dr. Ebrahim Yazdi and some other members of the Freedom Movement of Iran, human rights defenders such as Emadeddin Baghi, and no less than 15 journalists. They also joined the numerous previous detainees.

Video footage taken by citizens that appeared on the Internet showed possible plain-clothed security forces and paramilitary Bassij members shooting at the people. Other pictures showed wounded protesters with pellets and made police admit that they have used pellet guns. A video footage showed a police car hit and run over some of the protesters. Police commanders first denied that any such incident had taken place, but subsequently claimed that the car had been stolen.

The apparent intent to charge with moharebeh and sentence to death some of the defendants is illegal even under the Islamic Penal Code. The IPC stresses the use of weapons as a requirement for moharebeh. Nevertheless, the authorities have equated the charge of "fighting [the state]" with the vague charge of ‘fighting God’ and expanded it to include such acts as "organising offences", "efforts to deconstruct the system", "arson and rioting" and even the much more vaguely worded concept of "rising against righteousness." On the other hand, under the ICCPR, to which Iran is a State party, member states may use the death penalty only for the "most serious crimes", meaning intentional crimes with lethal or other extremely grave consequences. The charges and offences alleged by the Iranian judicial authorities, even if proved, do not amount to "the most serious crimes."

A majority of countries worldwide has already abolished the death sentence and the number is growing year by year. Against that international trend, in the past few years, the Islamic Republic of Iran has consistently ranked as the second biggest executioner in the world in terms of absolute numbers, next to China, and the first in terms of per capita number of executions. It is about time that the Islamic Republic of Iran also joined the rising trend to abolish the death penalty. Until then, as initial steps, the IRI should comply with its own laws, revise those laws to abolish the vaguely worded charges such as moharebeh and the pertaining inhuman punishments, and issue a moratorium on death sentences. Furthermore, the Iranian people should enjoy the international standards of fair trials, be able to protest peacefully and exercise their rights to freedom of expression, assembly and association.

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