The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Protesters arrested in Iran face a justice system stacked against them

Iranians protest in Tehran to decry the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in the custody of the “morality police.” The nationwide protests are now in their eighth week. (AP)

A young Iranian man accused of lighting a trash can on fire during a protest could face death row for “waging war against God.”

Two female journalists who helped break the story of Mahsa Amini — the 22-year-old woman who died in the custody of Iran’s “morality police” — have been in jail since late September, accused without evidence of being CIA agents.

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 uproar, the judiciary denied that a sentence had been issued.

This is what justice looks like in Iran, where the trials of protesters, bystanders and chroniclers of the current uprising have begun. There is little expectation of due process in a judicial system dominated by the security services and stacked against the accused.

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More than 15,000 Iranians have been arrested and several hundred killed in nearly two months of protests, the activist news agency Hrana estimates. The demonstrations that began in response to the alleged police killing of Amini have cascaded into a broad movement against the country’s clerical leaders. Authorities have demanded harsh punishments for protesters, whom they call “rioters,” and have sought to blame the unrest on foreign powers.

Some of the detained are released with a fine. Others are tried in a criminal court. But political prisoners typically face the feared 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 notorious for “egregious violations of due process,” said Tara Sepehri Far of Human Rights Watch. The state “uses the trials as another element of shaping their narrative about the protests.”

In late October, Iran’s judiciary said it had indicted about 1,000 people in Tehran and would hold public trials in the coming weeks. As in the past, rights groups expect they will be sham trials, relying on fabricated evidence and confessions made under duress or torture. Detainees have been accused of committing violence and killing Iranian security forces with little or no evidence, they say.

How these trials unfold could offer hints about Tehran’s political calculus — whether it will continue with its crackdown to contain the protests, or further escalate its repression in an effort to stamp them out completely.

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There is debate within Iran’s security circles, said Ellie Geranmayeh, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, over whether “to shock and awe the streets to scare them away from protesting,” or prioritize “containing the threat without having to resort to the mass executions that we saw in the 1980s” during post-revolution purges.

“I think the system is sort of stuck between what is the right approach,” she said.

This tension broke through on Nov. 5 when hard-line lawmakers, who dominate Iran’s parliament, issued a statement calling on the judiciary to “deal decisively” with the “instigators of recent riots” and punish “enemies of God” — a legal charge that can carry the death penalty.

Iranians were outraged. Three days later, the parliamentary spokesperson backtracked, claiming that “Western media” had misconstrued the lawmakers’ words; the harshest punishments — which could include the death penalty — would be reserved for those who “spilled blood,” he said.

Iran is one of the world’s leading executioners. At least 314 people were executed in 2021, according to Amnesty International, though the true figure is likely higher. Death sentences issued for political prisoners are sometimes commuted or never carried out, though the threat remains.

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Iran’s legal system is based on a fundamentalist interpretation of Islamic law. Corruption and abuse are rampant in the criminal courts, though years of international advocacy have led to some incremental reforms, said Hossein Raisi, a former lawyer in Iran and now a human rights professor at Carleton University in Ottawa.

But ultimately the “Iranian judiciary system is the ‘supreme leader’ judiciary system,” he said, referring to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the head of Iran’s theocratic government.

Iran’s first supreme leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, created the revolutionary courts as a stopgap system to purge opponents after ousting the country’s ruler, the shah, in 1979. They have since become a key feature of the Islamic republic, allowing regime loyalists to control the levers of justice. The revolutionary courts work closely with the intelligence wing of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, or IRGC, the supreme leader’s parallel security force.

The revolutionary courts rely on one judge, instead of the panel of judges used in criminal courts. Judges are typically clerics or have been trained at a state-run university. Political prisoners have limited or no access to their lawyers and cannot see the alleged evidence against them.

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The Intelligence Ministry and the IRGC’s intelligence wing are often involved in interrogations and evidence collection, in violation of Iranian law, said Raisi. But during times of unrest, he said, authorities drop all pretense of following criminal procedure.

“Unfortunately, everything that happens in the room is based on police or IRGC or regular intelligence officers,” he said. “When they don’t want to listen to people, they actually ban all kinds of the rights of the accused,” he added.

Before leaving Iran, Raisi was part of a small and ever-shrinking group of independent lawyers who take on human rights cases and represent political prisoners. These attorneys are under constant pressure and threat of arrest, said Raisi. When protests break out, they offer legal aid to families of detainees and often take on cases pro bono. 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 electoral fraud — Raisi asked other lawyers in 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.

“This is so beautiful,” said Raisi.

But as demonstrations continue, and arrests increase, it will be difficult for lawyers to keep up.

Raisi said judicial authorities effectively “copy and paste” charges, “like an application for all branches across the country.” Common charges have included propaganda and illegal gatherings against the state.

The revolutionary courts were key to Khamenei’s repression of the Green Movement. After a violent crackdown in 2009, hundreds of protesters, including key activists and reformist politicians, were tried, and several people were executed. The courts were also used for protesters after periods of unrest in 2017 and 2019.

By controlling the legal system, and other institutions, Iran’s leadership has “decapitated the reform movement,” said Enayat, the political sociologist.

“People have completely lost faith in reforming the system, as it hasn’t worked,” he said.

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