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Iran is using the death penalty against protesters and government critics


The Iranian government's violent crackdown on protesters continues four months after demonstrations first erupted. Thousands of people have been detained, hundreds have been killed, according to the U.N.'s Human Rights Office. The Iranian government has moved from detentions and beatings to executions, and more executions are expected. Gissou Nia focuses on human rights violations and international crimes at the Atlantic Council and joins us now. Thanks so much for being with us.

NISSOU GIA: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: From what you can tell, how is the Iranian government using the death penalty against protesters?

GIA: Well, for years, the Islamic Republic has been the leading global executioner per capita. But with the recent events, we see that the pace of executions has accelerated. The sort of interventions that defense counsel would maybe be able to make in the past on behalf of somebody who is in the dock has been completely eroded. And protesters are being arrested and then sentenced to death and killed in the space of 20, 30 days.

SIMON: Doesn't sound like much of a trial.

GIA: No. First of all, these trials are not open to the public, the ones that are in revolutionary courts, which often deal with the crimes that are alleged against protesters - corruption on earth, waging war against God, and other sort of trumped-up, spurious national security-focused charges. But when there are trials, they're reported to last maybe 5 minutes, 10 minutes. Often, the defendants don't even know what evidence is being used against them until the day of. They are often not given counsel of their own choosing. And so there are really no due process protections in place.

SIMON: And as you mentioned, the charges are - well, nothing we would recognize from capital crimes here. They're not murder. They're not treason, necessarily.

GIA: Yeah. Under international law, there is an exception for use of the death penalty. Most human rights advocates are completely for abolition of the death penalty worldwide and, you know, stick to that. But there are some exceptions under international law. However, they have to be for the most serious crimes, and there has to be due process protections in any trial. By both measures, the Islamic Republic is absolutely failing to meet their obligations under international law, under the ICCPR, which they are a signatory to. So they are failing in that route.

And what I should mention is that these individuals who are being executed are 20-, 21-, 22-year-old boys, really, who are being executed simply because they decided to participate in one of these protests and exercise their rights guaranteed under international law. So this definitely needs to come to an immediate end. These are people who have their whole lives before them, and they're given no chance to defend themselves. And they're being sentenced to death on trumped-up charges. Other governments need to take a really strong approach with the Islamic Republic and bring this to an end.

SIMON: Do we have any idea of the numbers of people who have been executed?

GIA: There have been about eight executions, if I'm not mistaken, up to now. There's about a hundred protesters on death row at the moment who are - either have been sentenced to death or are going to be sentenced to death based on the charges that have been brought against them. Another 700 protesters have been sentenced to very draconian sentences. So that's also a major problem.

And the other thing that has been not overlooked, but that we should really draw attention to, is that some of the protesters that are released have been severely tortured, are then reportedly, according to the state, dying from, quote-unquote, "suicide." The Center for Human Rights in Iran, an NGO that documents these violations, just came out with a report discussing these very mysterious, quote-unquote, "suicides." And the families are convinced that these are not suicides. These are people who died under custodial torture or who were otherwise disappeared and killed. And the state is now trying to paint it as if the protesters took their own lives.

SIMON: Is there any indication, from what you can tell, that there's any force on earth that would discourage Iran from doing this?

GIA: There is one really important action that has not been taken, which is that states that do have diplomatic relations with the Islamic Republic need to immediately recall their ambassadors and downgrade diplomatic relations. We saw that the U.K. has done this because an Iranian British national was executed a few days back. But this needs to be a coordinated approach whereby these countries do this together to send a very strong political signal to the Islamic Republic that the executions cannot continue and that this isn't going to be tolerated.

SIMON: Gissou Nia of the Atlantic Council, thanks so much.

GIA: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.