Iran: ‘Sham’ courts hand out severe sentences for passive protest

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After months of strikes and protests in Iran, thousands of people have been arrested and now face harsh sentences by the courts, including death. Activists, journalists and lawyers have received long prison terms for supporting the demonstrations or expressing their opposition to the regime, even passively. Activists and NGOs say that the Iranian judiciary is increasing the pressure on those arrested, handing out absurd charges, forcing confessions through extortion and torturing detainees. 

Since the start of the “Woman, Life, Freedom” protests in Iran in mid-September 2022, at least 19,000 people have been arrested by the Islamic regime, according to human rights organisations. Thousands of them, indicted by the Attorney General’s Office, are now facing trials, which Amnesty International qualifies as “unfair” and “shams”. Some sentences have already been handed out by the courts.

More than five years of prison for dancing

Protesters have been sentenced to severe punishments for even the most absurd of crimes. One couple was even sentenced to five years in prison for posting a video of themselves dancing.

Astiyazh Haghighi and Amir Ahmadi, a couple in their early 20s, were arrested on November 1, 2022 and sentenced to five years in prison for “promoting immorality and prostitution”, “assembly and collusion against national security” and “propaganda against the state” after they shared a video of themselves dancing together near Azadi Square in Tehran. 

The couple was also accused of “inviting people to protest” on their social media accounts where they have more than one million followers. 

While many media outlets reported that the young couple had been sentenced to more than ten years in prison, Mizan, a website belonging to the Islamic Republic’s judiciary, denied the initial reports and claimed that Astiyazh and Amir had been sentenced to five years in prison.

The couple’s family members say they have since been detained without access to a lawyer. 

Journalists arrested and sentenced

Since the death of Mahsa Amini in police custody on September 16, 2022, which sparked this wave of protests, numerous journalists have been arrested in Iran. One of them is Vida Rabbani. She was arrested on September 23, 2022 and sentenced to 11 years in prison for “assembly and collusion against national security”, “propaganda against the state”.  

The judge that sentenced her also referred to a poem she posted on social media which equated Islamic prayer to kissing. According to the judge, this was a “desecration”.

Rabbani is not the only journalist arrested and sentenced harshly after being accused of acting against the regime. Since the outbreak of the protests in Iran, at least 67 journalists have been arrested, according to Iranian human rights organisations.

Ehsan Pirbernash is a journalist and humourist. He was arrested on October 28, 2022 and sentenced to 18 years in prison, on January 10, 2023. He was charged with “insulting Islam in a manner deemed blasphemous”, “inciting aggression against the Islamic Republic’s government” and “propaganda against the Islamic Republic’s system” for making a satirical criticisms of the government. His sentence is the harshest sentence given to a journalist since these protests began. 

Nazila Maroufian is another journalist, arrested on October 30, 2022 after interviewing Mahsa Amini’s father. Maroufian was sentenced to two years suspended imprisonment for “propaganda against the state” and “inciting public opinion”. She was released on bail January 12, 2023.

Photo of Nazila Maroufian right after her release from prison, she shows a victory sign and has refused to wear a headscarf

Marzieh Amiri, another Iranian journalist, is now also on trial. She was arrested on October 31, 2022 and charged in her first trial with “assembly and collusion against national security” and “promoting immorality and prostitution”, allegedly because she wore her hair short, according to an account her sister posted on social media.

Niloufar Hamedi and Elaheh Mohammadi, two journalists who publicised Mahsa Amini’s death, have been in detention since October 26, 2022. They are charged with “assembly and collusion against national security”, “propaganda against the state”, Iranian intelligence also accused them of spying for the United States and of having been trained by the CIA.

Among the arrested protesters, the names of 720 university students, 46 lawyers and 97 artists are also listed. Farahnaz Nazeri is one of the arrested artists who has already been sentenced. She was sentenced to ten years in prison for “incitement to war and murder”, “propaganda against the state” and “promoting immorality and prostitution”.

Tthere are also dozens of prisoners in Iran who face execution after being charged with crimes that carry the death penalty. So far, Iran has executed four protesters and 13 others are sentenced to death.

Most of these harsh sentences, especially the death penalties, have been issued based on no evidence other than confessions that are extorted under severe duress, according to Amnesty International.

On January 27, Amnesty International called on the Iranian authorities to halt the imminent execution of three young Iranians Arshia Takdastan, 18, Mehdi Mohammadifard, 19, and Javad Rouhi, 31. Amnesty International said: “The Iranian authorities must immediately quash the unjust convictions and death sentences of three young protesters, who were subjected to gruesome torture including floggings, electric shocks, being hung upside down and death threats at gunpoint.”

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