But enthusiasm over the prospect of justice was short-lived. Ironically, on the heels of this glimpse of accountability, Iranians now face the specter of further abuses and draconian sentences for prisoners. And the international community is failing to take the necessary steps to stop it.
A week after the arrest in Sweden, Iran erupted into days of protests sparked by a sudden hike in gasoline prices. The government responded with force: The body count from the government’s brutal reaction includes at least 208 dead, with as-yet-untold numbers of people injured. An Iranian official claimed more than 7,000 protesters were arrested. Reports of torture against detainees and other ill treatment are already rolling in, and Iranian state media has announced that detainees will face national security charges that carry the death penalty.
Given that, in 2018, Iran had the second-highest number of executions in the world, there are legitimate concerns that mass executions without the minimum due-process protections may be on the horizon.
Indeed, there is historical precedent that should be cause for alarm. The 1988 prison massacre happened when the war between Iran and Iraq had just ended with a United Nations-brokered cease-fire. An exhausted and shaken Islamic Republic, forced to make peace with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, was anxious to consolidate its grip on power, stamp out dissent and rid itself of what it saw as a dangerous opposition. Accordingly, it sent thousands of people who had been serving terms in prison — predominantly opposition Mujahideen-e Khalq (MEK) followers but also others — to death in mass secret hangings or by firing squad.
In 1988, the government was willing to disregard law and effectively commit mass murder in the name of regime consolidation. It showed a similar disregard for the law in 2009, when demonstrators protested against disputed election results, and again in December 2017, when protests over economic conditions and corruption broke out across the country. The same dangers are clear and present in the current unrest, during which protesters shouted, "Down with the dictator.”
So what can be done?
First, the United Nations must do more. U.N. human rights chief Michelle Bachelet issued a strong statement on Dec. 6. But to ensure the Iranian authorities actually comply with this directive, U.N. bodies should continue to exert more pressure. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in particular should insist that the U.N. special rapporteur on Iran be granted access to the country. The same goes for U.N. experts on torture and extrajudicial executions and those who have outstanding country visit requests.
Moreover, the member states of the U.N. Human Rights Council should immediately call for a special session on the situation of human rights in Iran. Waiting until the next regular session in February and March 2020 will not do when thousands are detained and being denied access to counsel and other due process safeguards.
The United Nations has faced a crisis in leadership over the paralysis to act to stop bloodshed in Syria. It should remember its responsibility to respond to the world’s crises and take a strong position when the mass killings of civilians are a real possibility.
In addition, European countries should not allow their aversion to Trumpian politics to prevent them from taking a strong stand on these human rights concerns. Following the recent protests, six European countries announced they would be joining Instex, a barter mechanism designed to circumvent U.S. sanctions against trade with Iran, with hardly a mention of the Iranian state’s most violent crackdown on its population since the 1980s. While European attempts to salvage the Iran nuclear deal after Washington’s unilateral withdrawal have hit many roadblocks, continuing outreach should not mean turning a blind eye to the killing of hundreds of protesters. Europe needs to send an undeniable message that they will not carry on with business as usual in the face of these abuses.
Some observers eschew any sort of statement from outside actors, believing that this provides fodder to the Iranian state to blame external forces for domestic unrest. However, calculated, strategic engagement is different from intervention. The international community has leverage over Iran’s decision-making. If there was ever a time to spend that political capital, it is now, before the Iranian state’s dark history of killing political prisoners repeats itself.