Iranians gather around a charred police station in the central city of Isfahan that was set ablaze by protesters during a demonstration against a rise in gasoline prices in November 2019. Photo: AFP

November 2019 marked one of the gloomiest junctures of the 21st century for Iranians, when in a timespan of less than two weeks, angry protests by large groups of people against the overnight spike in the price of fuel triggered a violent response by the government and some 230 people were killed, according to the official statistics, while a report by Reuters put the number of casualties at 1,500.

The protests, which first erupted in oil-rich Khuzestan province and quickly mushroomed across the country, were initially an expression of outrage over the 300% rise in the price of gasoline, in a country gripped by international sanctions and deep-seated economic disparities.

However, they soon evolved into a venue for disgruntled Iranians to voice their dismay at an array of other challenges facing them, including the dearth of civil liberties, entrenched corruption in government institutions, state unaccountability, unbridled hyperinflation and spiraling inequities.

The government of President Hassan Rouhani, in a rush to quell the revolt and restore calm, shut down Internet connectivity for a total of 10 harrowing days, allegedly to prevent the “rioters” from organizing on social media, and armed forces opted for violent clampdowns, the details of which have been elaborately documented by advocacy organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch and by global media.

The United Nations reported one month after the national fury subsided that at least 7,000 people had been arrested at the height of the tensions.

The protests and the ensuing response unmasked the social rifts in a highly divided Iran and testified to a new level of confrontation between the government and the people.

Although there were extremists who exploited the civil movement to sow mayhem and destruction in some cities, including by damaging public property, the government’s botched handling of the episode and its resort to harsh measures to stifle dissent laid bare the deficiency of transparent procedures for the expression of grievances by the public, bringing to the fore the letdowns of the state’s relationship with civil society.

Now, many observers of Iran contend that four decades after the 1979 revolution, almost no protest movement has cropped up in the country that the authorities have not attributed to foreign “enemies,” and while the leadership asserts it recognizes peaceful dissent, there have been few instances of such campaigns that were not crushed with the disproportionate use of force.

‘Do Not Execute’

On February 21 this year, it was announced that three protesters of the November 2019 uprising, Amirhossein Moradi, 26, Saeed Tamjidi, 28, and Mohammad Rajabi, 26, had been sentenced to death on charges of “taking part in destruction and burning, aimed at countering the Islamic Republic system.” The spokesman to Iran’s judiciary also accused them of “armed robbery, kidnapping and harassment of the public.”

On July 10, one of the defendants’ lawyers revealed that the Supreme Court of Iran had upheld the verdict for the three young men, giving rise to speculations that they would be executed shortly.

The announcement was inflammatory enough to stir up massive protest activity, this time online, with people confined to their homes in the taxing days of the Covid-19 pandemic finding Twitter an appropriate platform to voice their communal rage at the ruling.

Regardless of what the three young men had perpetrated, the course of their legal proceedings, which involved their lawyers not having access to their files and a trial that many activists claimed was not fair, spawned a gigantic sympathy movement on Twitter with people posting tweets carrying the hashtag “Do Not Execute” in Persian.

Launched on July 14, the Twitter storm soon ended up trending internationally, and over the course of five days, more than 11 million tweets were posted decrying the confirmed death sentence for Moradi, Tamjidi and Rajabi.

The explosive online thrust was not merely an objection to the execution of the three men, about whose background and role in the November events few details are available; rather, it was a denunciation of the frequent use of capital punishment in Iran, which had cast its dark shadow this time over the doomed fate of three men in their 20s.

Iranians from all walks of life – artists, actors and actresses, journalists, university professors, politicians, lawyers, athletes, teachers, students and activists – as well as members of the Iranian diaspora weighed in on the online campaign and exhibited exceptional unity at a time when they continue to have polarizing differences on a number of issues, including the future of the country’s contentious nuclear program.

In a rare decision that was perceptibly a reaction to the wave of online protest, Iran’s judiciary announced on July 19 that it had suspended the planned executions, and as said by Babak Paknia, the lawyer of Amirhossein Moradi, the Supreme Court accepted the lawyers’ request for a retrial, reviving hopes that the verdict could be overturned.

The judiciary’s announcement represented the acknowledgement of a civil demand that was expressed in the most peaceful, refined manner by millions of Iranians at home and abroad. It was an endorsement of the conviction that even a fractured society like Iran can emerge successful in delivering shared objectives in difficult times.

Implications for the future

Iran is a country where the highest number of executions in the Middle East takes place. After China, Iran recorded the most executions in 2019. According to Amnesty International, 251 people were condemned to death in Iran last year, slightly down from 253 people in 2018.

Things have significantly improved since the turn of the century. The World Coalition against the Death Penalty reported that at least 317 people were executed in 2007, and in 2008, as many as 346 executions were documented.

Although the majority of those executed are criminals involved in drug trafficking or individuals who have committed rape and murder, there are still people who wind up on death row for political activism or opposition to the government.

The global momentum to abolish the death penalty might not soon head into Iran, as the country strictly enforces sharia laws, which prescribe capital punishment for major offenses. However, to expect Iran’s judicial processes to be reformed so that the country’s blemished image can be brushed up and gaps between the government and the public are bridged is not a tall order.

Lengthy prison terms or execution decrees for citizens who have differences of opinion with the Islamic Republic leadership or are charged with vague crimes such as acting against national security, espionage for foreign governments or disturbing the public opinion that in many cases remain legally unsubstantiated serve no good cause, rather than portraying Iran as an ultra-conservative nation-state with an intolerant Islamist government.

This is neither helpful to the global standing of Iran nor conducive to praise for the religion it officially promotes.

Saudi Arabia, also a conservative Middle East kingdom, has in recent years reformed and revised many of its judicial processes, and is treading on the path of imparting a more nuanced impression of itself.

It should not be difficult for Iran to replicate Saudi Arabia’s reforms in its local context and come up with improvements in its definitions of crime and transgression, join international pacts such as the United Nations Convention against Torture, to which it is not currently a party, and particularly restructure its approach to what it calls “security crimes,” which is a thinly veiled rewording of “political crimes,” and embrace more moderation and clemency in legal judgments.

A melting pot of subcultures, ethnic groups, religious minorities and lingual communities, blessed with a young, dynamic and educated population, Iran enjoys all the features of a thriving society. Judicial reforms in pursuit of making contemporary Iran a more inclusive, pluralist and tolerant entity are the prerequisite to ensuring this society can unleash all its potentials.

Of course, a new engagement with the international community is the seminal and urgent need of Iran in the realm of foreign policy, about which much has been said in the media and academia.

Kourosh Ziabari is a journalist based in Iran. He is the recipient of a Chevening Award from the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office. He is also an American Middle Eastern Network for Dialogue at Stanford (AMENDS) Fellow.