Not much has changed in Iran since the popular uprising against the Iranian ruling party started more than nine weeks ago. Since the death of the 22-year-old Mahsa Amini after she was arrested by Iran’s religious morality police, protests have spread to more than 160 cities across the country, and in a desperate bid to maintain control, police and secret police have cracked down using deadly force and arrested protesters in massive numbers, with reports of torture rampant inside Iranian jails. More than 15,800 protesters have been detained and that 344 have been killed since the protests began, according to the U.S.-based Human Rights Activists News Agency. This week, rumors that this entire lot of protesters have been summarily sentenced to death spread quickly online, prompting strong reactions, including a statement from the Canada prime minister, Justin Trudeau.
The prime minister deleted that tweet after many fact checkers flagged it as false. But what is happening in Iran now? Information right now is scarce because access to the internet in Iran has been severely restricted, and the government has actively spread false stories. But human rights lawyer Hossein Raeesi, who practiced law in Iran for two decades before he fled, has been able to keep a close eye on the events as they unfold through secret communications with people on the ground, some of whom have been arrested for protesting. He told me how the rumor spread, why the kernel of truth it was born from still matters, and what he expects is next for the imprisoned protesters in Iran. Our conversation has been edited and condensed.
Slate: Can you explain what’s happened with the viral story that says hundreds, maybe thousands, of Iranian protesters were about to be mass executed?
Hossein Raeesi: 227 of 290 parliamentarians in Iran voted to release a statement asking the judiciary in Iran to issue an execution verdict against all protesters. This is way is outside of their purview, and the parliament has no legitimate power to issue a death sentence for anyone. But because the Iranian parliamentarians are loyal to the suppressive government, they lashed out after witnessing Iranians, especially the younger generation, engaging in nonstop protests nationwide. They were angry. The parliament is meant to represent the people, but unfortunately, they were not elected in free elections. Most of the parliamentarians were members of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Almost all of the members who signed the statement were official members of IRGC in the past.
For us Iranians, we know they are not actual representatives of Iranian society or the Iranian people. That vote is not out of character for them. Throughout the economic crisis during COVID, they did nothing to support the Iranian people. No one is surprised by this vote.
Is there any likelihood that this will actually happen?
No, not for all of them. For a few of them? Yes. The Revolutionary Court in Iran already issued its first death sentence. But the Iranian authorities are afraid. They know that if they execute anyone involved in the protests, it will stoke the anger of Iranian people and strengthen the opposition against them. Iranian people are already saying enough is enough. There are many fiscal, social, and cultural grievances, particularly among women and ethnic minorities. The younger generation currently has no hope and have nothing to lose. If the authorities begin executing Iranians, the people come out even harder. Also, judicially, it’s currently not legal to carry this out, though we know the judicial system is not independent and is loyal to the Supreme Leader. The consequences, I believe, will deter the government from listening to the parliament, because it will only add more fuel to the fire.
Who is the first protester sentenced to death?
Based on NGO reports in communication with activists and lawyers, so far nine people are facing the death sentence. The one who received the death sentence is Saman Yasin, a singer. He is a Kurdish Iranian from the Kurdistan Region. They charged this man, who is an artist, with using a weapon against the authorities, though we don’t know if that’s true, because he was not given a fair trial. He had no access to his lawyer, and neither do the other eight who are facing the death sentence. None of them are granted rights to access case information or get support in any way, and we know all of them are being tortured. The Revolutionary Court is charging them with committing a crime against Allah, towards God. There are two charges: Moharebeh, waging war against Allah, and Mofsed-e-filarz, spreading corruption on Earth. Both terms, Islamically, are not related to protesting against the government. It means the Iranian authority, and Iranian judiciary, are abusing the law to charge those people.
How does Islam being used in this way complicate your feelings as an Iranian Muslim?
I believe the Iranian Supreme leader is an extremist Muslim, like ISIS, Taliban, and Al-Qaeda. I believe the Iranian government is worse than those groups. I strongly believe the Iranian government is abusing Islam to govern their own way, without any regard for the religion. They don’t care about Islam. They only care about their authority. There are currently Muslims in China and Chechnya who are being oppressed, and the Iranian government is totally silent about that. To me, that proves they are abusing the title of Islamic rule to oppress people. Nothing more.
What are you hearing about conditions for detained protestors?
Around 15,000 people have been detained so far, according to unofficial estimates. Some of them have been released, but most of them are still in jail. The ages of those detained range from 14 to 21. Many of them are under 18. I have a number of colleagues who are in contact with them. Some are women, some are in the hospital. One of my colleagues in Iran has met with 40 to 50 women that they have detained. All of them, she says, report being tortured and are covered in bruises. They have no access to lawyers. Many of them were arrested protesting at their universities.
Is this suppression effort working?
The unrest is still ongoing after almost two months. Because of the deadly force being used by the government’s police force and their undercover militia, the Basij, the momentum behind the protests have slowed, but they are still widespread. Recently, children marched out of their high school in Marvdasht, a small traditional city near Shiraz, and removed their headscarves and chanted against the authorities. The police force was quick to crack down on those high schoolers. The images of the police attacking those kids, and the pools of blood in the aftermath, provoked strong reactions from people in other cities. Demonstrations are ongoing, and students in hundreds of universities across Iran are continuing to speak out for civil rights, political rights, and economic rights. People have already made the choice for regime change. The government has so far ignored them, but eventually, they will have to listen.
What is next for the detained people? What can be done to change their fate?
Based on my own experience, nothing. I myself was in contact with some people who were detained and then released. They reach out to me to ask me for legal advice. But they tell me they are going to join the protesters again. No one I’ve talked to is resolving to change their fate. I’ve also spoken with some of the families of those detained who are trying to apply pressure on the government to change course on considering the death penalty, but no one so far has been successful. Some of the people detained were arrested for only spray-painting slogans against the Supreme Leader on the walls, like Women, Life, Freedom. There are 160 cities across Iran involved in anti-government demonstrations. I don’t see anyone changing course anytime soon.
There are several intense rumors going viral, including that guards would rape female prisoners before execution to deny them entry into the afterlife. Does that have any basis in reality?
This happened in 1980, not currently. This is not accurate news. Female prisoners are being abused. But that specifically about raping virgins before executing to deny them heaven? Yes, this happened in 1980. This time? No.
Why is information so hard to get from inside Iran right now?
They shut down the Internet. And if you if you post any footage or pictures from your cell phone to social media or send it to a journalist, they can charge you as a spy. Protesters are being advised to leave their cell phones at home because the authorities are tracking cell phone data movements to monitor who has joined to protest movement. They are using that as evidence to charge people with crimes against the state. And at the same time, officials are disseminating fake news through the media to influence the society. It’s right now extremely hard to get any information from inside of Iran.
What do people get wrong about what’s happening in Iran?
Despite the oppression of media, there are videos that make it online. But there are only a few places that I would recommend people seek out that information. Iran International TV is a satellite TV station that have English and Arabic language websites. BBC World and the New York Times are also releasing reputable reports. We have some Iranian students in universities who are publishing reliable information on Telegram with us that we verify with family friends and lawyers on the ground before we share with Iranian Human Rights campaigns, like the one based in New York. Accurate information is the most important tool we have right now.