In a hearing without his lawyer, a 22-year-old protester was sentenced to death for committing “corruption on earth”, his mother said in an online plea. After an outcry, justice denied that a sentence had been pronounced.
This is what justice looks like in Iran, where the trials of protesters, bystanders and chroniclers of the current uprising have begun. There are few expectations for the rule of law in a justice system dominated by the security services and against the accused.
Iran accuses female journalists who helped uncover Amini’s story of being CIA spies
More than 15,000 Iranians have been arrested and several hundred killed in nearly two months of protests, the militant Hrana news agency estimates. Protests that began in response to the alleged killing of Amini by police have blossomed into a broad movement against the country’s religious leaders. Authorities have demanded harsh penalties for protesters, whom they call “rioters”, and have sought to blame the unrest on foreign powers.
Some of the detainees are released with a fine. Others are tried by a criminal court. But generally, political prisoners facing the dreaded Revolutionary Courts, a parallel system created to protect the Islamic republic, said Hadi Enayat, a political sociologist specializing in Iranian law.
The Revolutionary Courts are known for their “gross violations of the right to due process”, said Tara Sepehri Far of Human Rights Watch. The state is “using the trials as another element to shape its narrative of the protests.”
In late October, Iran’s judiciary said it had indicted around 1,000 people in Tehran and would hold public trials in the coming weeks. As in the past, rights groups expect these to be sham trials, relying on fabricated evidence and confessions made under duress or torture. Detainees have been charged with committing violence and killing members of Iran’s security forces with little or no evidence, they say.
The course of these trials could give clues to Tehran’s political policy reckoning – whether he will continue his repression to contain the protests, or whether he will further intensify his repression with the aim of eradicating them altogether.
As protests rock Iran, its most feared security force is on the prowl
There is a debate within Iran security circles, said Ellie Geranmayeh, policy officer at the European Council on Foreign Relations, on whether to “shock and scare the streets to scare them into protesting”, or prioritize “containing the threat without having to resort to mass executions”. that we saw in the 1980s” during post-revolutionary purges.
“I think the system is kind of stuck between what’s the right approach,” she said.
This tension erupted on November 5 when hardline lawmakers, who dominate Iran’s parliament, issued a statement calling on the judiciary to “decisively deal with” the “instigators of the recent riots” and punish the “enemies of God” – a legal charge that can carry the death penalty.
The Iranians were outraged. Three days later, the parliamentary spokesman backtracked, saying the “Western media” had misinterpreted the lawmakers’ remarks; the harshest punishments – which could include the death penalty – would be reserved for those who “shed blood”, he said.
Iran is one of the main executioners in the world. At least 314 people were executed in 2021, according to Amnesty International, although the true figure is likely higher. Death sentences imposed on political prisoners are sometimes commuted or never carried out, even if the threat remains.
Iranian doctors have joined the uprising – and are paying the price
The Iranian legal system is based on a fundamentalist interpretation of Islamic law. Corruption and abuse are endemic in the criminal courts, although years of international advocacy have led to incremental reforms, said Hossein Raisi, a former lawyer in Iran and now a professor of human rights at Carleton University in Ottawa.
But ultimately, “Iran’s justice system is the justice system of the ‘supreme leader’,” he said, referring to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the head of Iran’s theocratic government.
Iran’s first supreme leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, established the Revolutionary Courts as an interim system to purge dissenters after ousting the country’s leader, the Shah, in 1979. They have since become a key part of the Islamic republic, allowing regime loyalists to control the levers of justice. The Revolutionary Courts works closely with the intelligence wing of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, or IRGC, the Supreme Leader’s parallel security force.
Revolutionary courts rely on a single judge, instead of the panel of judges used in criminal courts. Judges are usually religious or have been educated at a public university. Political prisoners have limited or no access to their lawyers and cannot see the evidence alleged against them.
As unrest descends on Iran’s schools, government attacks children
The Ministry of Intelligence and the intelligence wing of the IRGC are often involved in interrogation and evidence collection, in violation of Iranian law, Raisi said. But during times of unrest, he said, authorities abandon any pretense of following criminal procedure.
“Unfortunately, everything that happens in the room is based on the police or the IRGC or regular intelligence officers,” he said. “When they don’t want to listen to people, they actually deny all kinds of rights to the accused,” he added.
Before leaving Iran, Raisi was part of a small and shrinking group of independent lawyers who handle human rights cases and represent political prisoners. These lawyers are constantly under pressure and threatened with arrest, Raisi said. When protests break out, they offer legal aid to families of detainees and often take on pro bono cases. In recent weeks, 24 lawyers have been arrested, according to Hrana.
First, Iran came for a rights activist. Then for his family and friends.
During the 2009 Green Movement – when millions of Iranians protested election fraud – Raisi asked other lawyers from his hometown of Shiraz to volunteer. Only seven did. But in recent weeks, more than 40 lawyers in the southwestern city have offered to take on cases of detained protesters, he said.
“It’s so beautiful,” Raisi said.
But as protests continue and arrests mount, it will be difficult for lawyers to keep pace.
Raisi said legal authorities are “copying and pasting” the charges, “like an application for all branches across the country.” Common charges include propaganda and unlawful assembly against the state.
The Revolutionary Courts played a key role in Khamenei’s crackdown on the green movement. After a violent crackdown in 2009, hundreds of protesters, including key activists and reformist politicians, were put on trial and several people were executed. The courts have also been used for protesters after periods of unrest in 2017 and 2019.
By controlling the judiciary and other institutions, Iran’s rulers have “decapitated the reform movement”, said Enayat, a political sociologist.
“People have completely lost faith in reforming the system because it hasn’t worked,” he said.