The race to identify thousands of jailed Iranian protesters as regime executions continue


The second execution of a protester in as many weeks by Iran’s regime as it intensifies its deadly crackdown on anti-government demonstrations is bringing a renewed sense of urgency to the Iranian diaspora.

Mohsen Shekari was hanged last Thursday morning in Tehran. Then, early Monday, the regime’s judiciary confirmed it had hanged Majid Reza Rahnavard in Mashhad. 

Both men were charged with “waging war against God” and tried in Revolutionary Courts — the regime’s main channel to stifle political dissent by enforcing its Islamic sharia law. Human rights organizations have characterized the system as having no due process and said confessions are routinely produced under torture to be used as evidence in “sham trials.”

On the same day that Shekari was executed, two young Kurdish men, Shadman Ahmadi and Shahriar Adeli, died after being tortured by regime authorities in different cities, according to the Kurdistan Human Rights Network. Both had been arrested for taking part in protests that have rocked the nation. 

WATCH | Iranian regime executes 2nd man over protests: 

Iran carries out 2nd execution over protests

Iran hanged a man in public after he had been convicted of killing two members of security forces, the second execution linked to anti-government protests in less than a week.

The killings of these men, all in their 20s, has brought a renewed sense of urgency for the Iranian diaspora, to try to prevent more official executions and unofficial killings of protesters.

Experts say this is the largest political challenge the Islamic Republic has experienced since its inception in February 1979. 

Protests first erupted in September after 22-year-old Mahsa Amini died in police custody. She had been arrested by the country’s morality police, allegedly for not wearing her hijab properly, part of the regime’s strict Islamic dress code. Her family insists she was beaten to death.

Four people, including one with her face painted, march in a rally while holding torches
A participant with gallows painted on one side of her face and the national colours of Iran on the other marches during a torchlight procession, along with other members of the Iranian diaspora, in Oslo on Dec. 10, 2022. (Sergei Gapon/AFP via Getty Images)

Identifying ‘voiceless’ detainees

CBC News spoke with human rights activists and journalists who say that through their vast network of contacts inside Iran, they are being inundated with the names of protesters who have been detained during the regime’s crackdown and are likely facing the death penalty.

At least 18,242 protesters have been arrested and 481 killed, including 68 children and teenagers, nationwide and in anti-regime protests that have gripped the country for almost three months, according to the Human Rights Activists News Agency (HRANA). 

“The regime has an extremely horrible track record when it comes to detaining protesters on the streets and specifically, the treatment of those who are unknown,” said journalist Masoud Kazemi, who is based in Turkey.

He says casting a spotlight on these voiceless protesters can save their lives.

Kazemi, who was jailed by the regime for almost a year in Iran’s notorious Evin prison, says that while he’s worried about artists, athletes and prominent Iranians who have been detained, those who aren’t famous are treated with more brutality.

“In darkness, crimes take on a deeper dimension,” he said. “These voiceless protesters are subjected to more physical and mental suffering. They also receive harsher sentences.”

The images of two men are displayed on cellphone screens
The images of Mohsen Shekari, left, and Majid Reza Rahnavard are displayed on mobile phones in the Cypriot capital of Nicosia in December. Both men were executed for crimes the Iranian regime has linked to ongoing protests that have been sweeping the country for nearly three months. (AFP via Getty Images)

Sharing human stories behind the numbers

For Kurdish human rights activist Soran Mansourian, focusing the public’s attention on the regime’s victims has become second nature. 

He says his sources in Iranian prisons tell him the behaviour of authorities there drastically changes when detainees have their identities publicized.

“They even walk the prisoners to the interrogation cell with more care,” he said. “Whereas, prisoners who are not spoken about are often beaten with batons as they’re being dragged to be interrogated.”

Mansourian says he tries to tell stories about the people who have been jailed or killed, using their hobbies and passions to show that there are real human beings behind the numbers. 

“They are not just numbers, so I try to create a connection between the audience and the victims where they can see themselves in Iranian people,” he told CBC News from his office in the Netherlands. 

Mansourian started this work after his younger brother, Borhan, was shot in the Kurdish majority city of Kermanshah during the November 2019 anti-regime uprising, in which 1,500 people were killed.

“In 2019, no one was listening to us,” Mansourian said. “No one talked about the people the regime killed in Bloody November. The media didn’t listen.”

Kazemi, who was in Evin prison at that time, says he saw first-hand the injuries and physical violence the protesters were subjected to on the streets when they arrived at the jail.

This photo released by Iran’s Mizan News Agency shows a workshop in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison damaged by a fire in October. The blaze killed eight inmates and injured 61, according to the country’s judiciary. (Koosha Mahshid Falahi/Mizan News Agency/The Associated Press)

Unknown detainees become easy targets, activists say 

“It appears that for the first time in the Islamic Republic’s history, the international community, at least on the surface, cares about human rights abuses inside Iran,” Kazemi said.

That’s why he says the regime and its authorities are worried about the way they are perceived by the West and might also act with more caution once a prisoner’s name is publicized and put into the international limelight. 

Kazemi says the regime pays a higher price when it mistreats prominent Iranians — and that unknown detainees become easy targets for abuse, torture and the death penalty.

Each family that identifies its loved ones adds another page to the thick record of human rights violations by the Islamic Republic.– Masoud Kazemi, journalist

In one recent example, the parents of prominent writer and dissident Hossein Ronaghi refused to stay silent about the torture they said their son experienced in prison. They resorted to sleeping in front of Evin prison to push the regime to release their son. Eventually, authorities allowed Ronaghi to be released on bail.

“The regime doesn’t bear any responsibility for its mistreatment or killing of those who are not identified. Families need to come forward, even anonymously, to make sure the names of their loved ones are on record,” Kazemi said. 

“Each family that identifies its loved ones adds another page to the thick record of human rights violations by the Islamic Republic.”

A fist holds up a noose during a protest
Members of the Iranian community living in Istanbul attend a protest on Dec. 13, a day after a second man was executed in Iran for taking part in protests following the death of Mahsa Amini. (Dilara Senkaya/Reuters)

Families told to keep names of detainees ‘secret’

Kazemi says that like Amini, many of the protesters are not political activists, setting this uprising apart from previous movements.

He says that for this reason, many of the families of detainees don’t have experience dealing with regime authorities.

Kazemi says they’re told by regime agents that if they stay silent, their loved ones might be freed. But as the days and weeks pass, he says they often realize they’re being deceived.

“That’s what happened to Mohsen Shekari,” Kazemi said. “With different methods, they threatened and pressured the family to stay quiet. Until the point that they simply executed him without any notice.”

A woman in a fur hood holds a photo of a man during a protest on a bridge
Demonstrators holding posters of Iranian protester Mohsen Shekari gathered on the Albert Memorial Bridge in Regina Saturday to protest the current regime in Iran. (Matt Howard/CBC)

Farangiss Bayat, a close friend of prominent jailed student leader Majid Tavakoli, says more families have to come forward.

“We know there are many children and teens who are currently jailed. Some of their families just cannot believe that they have been charged with heavy political crimes. We’re talking about kids who are 14, 15 years old who should be in school right now,” Bayat said from Germany.

Across Twitter, Instagram and other social media platforms, thousands of Iranians are using hashtags like #SayTheirNames to amplify the stories of the detained.

Aiding those efforts, several German and Swedish parliamentarians have announced their political sponsorship of some protestors who have been sentenced to death and imprisonment in Iran.

Regime’s history of mass executions

Underlying this urgency, is the worry that the Iranian regime may repeat its history of secret mass killings.

In 1998, the Islamic Republic unlawfully detained and extrajudicially executed at least 5,000 Iranian prisoners for their political beliefs, dumping the bodies in unmarked graves. Amnesty International has called it one of the most heinous chapters of state violence in Iran’s recent history

Iranian human rights lawyer Saeid Dehghan, who has defended many victims of the regime, says he worries that the regime may carry out plans to massacre prisoners or eliminate protesters through forced disappearances. 

“Many of the recent arrests have been carried out in violation of the rules and regulations, similar to kidnappings. It’s possible that this could lead to protesters being killed without trial,” he said.

WATCH | Lawyer calls for international community to act on crisis in Iran: 

Prison fire underscores ‘human rights crisis’ in Iran: lawyer

Human rights lawyer Gissou Nia says the international community ‘needs to be doing far more’ to urge the release of prisoners at Iran’s notorious Evin prison, where a deadly fire broke out late Saturday.

According to Dehghan, many are suspicious about a fire and shooting in Evin prison on Oct. 15. A state news agency has said eight prisoners died and 61 were injured.

But Dehghan says it “could have been part of a plot by the security establishment to cause the ‘accidental’ deaths of the political prisoners.”

Bayat says she shares that concern and worries that prisoners will be summarily executed. 

“We seriously need to consider the possibility of a repeat of the summer of 1988,” she said.

Despite the deadly crackdown on protesters, Mansourian says the regime won’t succeed in its efforts to stifle dissent. 

“Iranians will never go back to life the way it was on September 15 — the day before Mahsa Jina Amini was killed by the regime.”

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