The Iranian government is allowing prisoners just 15 minutes to argue for their lives, as a number of activists arrested in countrywide protests face the death penalty after suffering brutal torture and “sham trials”.
Four men have so far been executed in connection with the protests that erupted in Iran four months ago, after the death in custody of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini.
Amini was detained and beaten by Iran’s morality police in September for allegedly not wearing her mandatory headscarf “properly”, and died of severe head trauma three days later.
Almost 20 people have been sentenced to death over the protests. Human rights groups say they were convicted after grossly unjust sham trials, amid allegations of horrific torture.
Mohammad Mehdi Karami, a 22-year-old karate champion, was hanged on January 7, just 65 days after his arrest in connection to the protests.
Karami had less than 15 minutes to defend himself in court, BBC Persian reported.
“The justice system in Iran is unfortunately, unjust,” Amnesty International campaigner Nikita White told news.com.au.
“We often see trials that are unfair, and that take mere minutes for people to be found guilty and sentenced to long stretches in prison or even death.
“We have documentation to suggest that many of these protesters faced unfair trials, were tortured, and were subjected to sexual abuse.”
Iranian authorities dismissed the unrest in the aftermath of Amini’s tragic death as “rioting” and launched a violent crackdown.
At least 481 protesters have been killed by security forces, according to Europe-based NGO Iran Human Rights.
Inside an Iranian sham trial
Karami was arrested in connection with the murder of a member of the paramilitary Basij force during protests in the city of Karaj, west of Tehran, on November 3. He was later charged with “corruption on Earth”, a capital offence.
Karami went on trial before a Revolutionary Court in Karaj less than a month later, alongside 16 others also accused of involvement in the murder — including three children.
Defendants in Iran are entitled to legal representation, but in sensitive cases are not permitted to choose their own lawyers. Instead, the court appoints one from a list approved by the judiciary.
Journalists and members of the defendant’s family are barred from court, and may only watch the trial via heavily edited footage released by the judiciary.
In one such video, Karami appears visibly distressed as he “confesses” to hitting the Basij member on the head with a rock.
His court-appointed lawyer does not challenge or dispute this account, and instead asks the judge for forgiveness. Karami then says he was “fooled” and sits down.
On December 5, a little over a month after he was arrested, Karami was convicted and sentenced to death. Four of his co-defendants were also sentenced to death, while the children and eight others were handed lengthy jail terms.
Defendants’ families often come under pressure to stay silent, but Karami’s father Mashallah bravely gave an interview to the Etemad newspaper.
His son called him on the day that he was sentenced, his father recalled.
“Dad, they gave us the verdict. Mine is the death penalty. Don’t tell Mum anything,” he said, reiterating his son’s innocence.
A video circulated on social media later showed Mashallah Karami kneeling at his son’s grave, wearing what appeared to be his son’s yellow jumper.
He held a photo of his son in one hand and clutched his own throat with the other, mimicking a noose.
Reports of forced confessions
Many confessions such as Karami’s are, according to human rights groups, “forced”.
“Everyone that Amnesty has spoken with has been denied their right to legal representation. They haven’t been able to choose their own lawyer,” White explained.
“Extracted confessions are very common in the Iranian prison system. Many people are interrogated and subjected to torture until they confess.”
In another case investigated by Amnesty International, the confession of Iranian rapper Toomaj Salehi was broadcast in Iranian state TV. Salehi had a broken arm in the clip, which White said “seemed to be evidence of torture”.
The clip was the first time Salehi’s family received confirmation their loved one was still alive.
Chilling accounts of torture
At least 109 protesters are currently at risk of execution according to Iran Human Rights, having been sentenced to death or charged with capital offences. At least three of them are children.
Meanwhile, chilling accounts have emerged of imprisoned protesters being subjected to horrific torture and abuse.
Amnesty International called on Iran to quash the convictions and death sentences of three young protesters, who they say were subjected to gruesome torture including floggings, electrocution, being hung upside down for hours and being threatened with guns.
Two of them, the organisation alleged, were raped or sexually tortured by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, such as by placing ice on their testicles for two days.
Arshia Takdastan, 18, Mehdi Mohammadifard, 19, and Javad Rouhi, 31, each received two death sentences in December for “enmity against God” and “corruption on earth”. The court stated that the young men “incited … widespread” arson or vandalism by dancing, clapping, chanting or throwing headscarves into bonfires during protests September.
Javad Rouhi received a third death sentence for “apostasy” based on confessions under torture that he burned a copy of the Quran during protests.
“These charges (enmity against God and corruption on Earth) are really broad charges that can be used to convict people for a wide range of actions,” Ms White explained.
“Protesters have been accused of a range of alleged crimes that fall under those two charges, but because the trials have been so unfair there is no way to ascertain whether or not they are guilty.”
Rouhi was, according to Amnesty International, subjected to horrific torture resulting in shoulder and muscular injuries, urinary incontinence, digestive complications and mobility and speech impairments — all while being denied medical attention.
Mohammadifard was, according to Amnesty, held in a solitary confinement cell infested with mice and cockroaches, and was hospitalised after severe beatings and sexual violence.
Takdastan’s confession was extracted at gunpoint after weeks of torture, also according to the organisation.
All three men have appeals before the Supreme Court, which has so far upheld almost all sentences of protesters.
Lawyers of protesters also face charges
Authorities have repeatedly said the fast-tracked trials of protesters and their harsh sentences are meant as a deterrent.
Seyed Mohammad Hosseini, a 39-year-old volunteer children’s coach, was hanged in January after standing trial alongside Karami for the same crime.
Hosseini’s parents are dead, but “We are all Mohammad’s family” trended on Iranian social media.
Lawyer Ali Sharifzadeh Ardakani, who represented Hosseini when he was permitted independent legal representation after already being sentenced to death, visited his client in prison and alleged he was tortured.
“He cried throughout the visit. He talked about torture, being beaten while handcuffed and blindfolded, and being kicked in the head and losing consciousness,” Ardakani tweeted.
“[He is] a man whose confessions have all been obtained under torture and have no legal validity.”
Ardakani attempted to appeal the death sentence and was told to return to court on January 7. Hosseini was hanged before he even arrived.
Ardakani has since been detained by authorities and is out on bail, and reportedly faces legal action over the tweet that alleged torture.