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Iranian Death Sentences Seen As Intimidation Move Over Postelection Unrest

Iranian activist Abdollah Momeni is believed to have been sentenced to eight years in prison.
Iranian activist Abdollah Momeni is believed to have been sentenced to eight years in prison.
Five people have been sentenced to death in Iran in connection with the unrest that shook the Islamic republic following President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's hotly disputed reelection earlier this year.

The death sentences against the five men, some of whom are believed to have been arrested before the June 12 vote, were officially handed down due to their affiliation with "counterrevolutionary and terrorist groups," according to a Justice Department statement. But the move -- coming after scores have been given lengthy prison sentences -- is widely seen as a warning by Tehran intended to prevent future protests over the election, which the opposition says was rigged in favor of Ahmadinejad.

For months, the opposition Green movement has continued its protests in defiance of a brutal crackdown on dissent. As recently as November 4, protesters returned to the streets to voice their discontent with Ahmadinejad's election and with Supreme leader Ali Khamenei, who has said that questioning the outcome of the vote should be considered the "biggest crime."

Ali Afshari, a Washington, D.C.-based political analyst and former student leader, describes the five as the easiest targets for authorities among the postelection detainees. He says he believes they are victims of a policy of intimidation.

"The regime wants to create an atmosphere of fear in order to control society and make people stay at home, be silent, and end the protests," Afshari says. "Iran is using [the death sentences] for that purpose."

'Show Trials'

The five are among a total of 89 detainees who have been convicted for their purported role in the postelection protests. Many were sentenced after appearing in what have been called mass "show trials," condemned by the opposition and rights groups as a travesty of justice. Most of those who went on trial reportedly did not have access to lawyers and were under pressure to make false confessions.

Iran's Justice Department announced in its November 17 statement that 81 people have been sentenced to prison terms ranging from six months to 15 years, and three have received suspended sentences.

We know -- and everyone knows -- that none of these sentences can be enforced, and the regime will not have the power to keep the children of the nation in prison for a long time.
The Justice Department did not provide the names of the detainees but said that the verdicts can be appealed.

An Iranian judiciary official announced last month that three people had been sentenced to death on charges related to the postelection unrest. They were accused of ties with a monarchist group and the exiled Mujahedin Khalq Organization (MKO), which is considered by Iran and the United States as a terrorist group.

Ahead of the November 17 announcement, Iran-based rights groups had released the names of five detainees who had been sentenced to death. It is likely that the five are the same as those announced by the Justice Department.

The Committee of Human Rights Reporters last week identified Reza Khademi as the latest to be handed a death sentence. The committee said on its website that Khademi was reportedly arrested on June 13 and was charged with ties to the MKO and with leading postelection protests.

Khademi has denied the charges against him, as have the others who have been sentenced to death, according to their families and lawyers.

The charges against the postelection detainees include acting against Iran's national security, disrupting public order, vandalism, waging war against God, and corruption on earth.

Among those sentenced to prison is former student leader Abdollah Momeni, who campaigned for reformist cleric and opposition leader Mehdi Karrubi. He is believed to have received an eight-year prison sentence.

Warning To Other Students

Mostafa Khosravi, a colleague of Momeni's at the policy-making committee of the Graduates Association of Iran, considers the heavy sentence against Momeni as a warning to any students planning to join an anti-Ahmadinejad protest set for December 7.

However, he believes that Iran cannot afford to keep people such as Momeni in jail for a long time.

"We know -- and everyone knows -- that none of these sentences can be enforced, and the regime will not have the power to keep the children of the nation in prison for a long time," Khosravi says.

Some 4,000 people have been arrested in the course of the postelection unrest. More than 100 have been imprisoned or remain in detention on charges of staging a "velvet coup." They include senior reformist figures and intellectuals, such as Iranian-American scholar Kian Tajbakhsh, who is reported to have received a 12-year prison term.

Tajbakhsh's family said in a statement on October 25 that he has been in solitary confinement for nearly four months, aside from breaks for long hours of interrogations, and has not been given access to his lawyer.

The statement added that charges lodged by the Revolutionary Court linking Tajbaksh with senior reformists accused of plotting to overthrow the regime with the support of the United States are entirely baseless.
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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is managing editor of RFE/RL's Radio Farda, which breaks through government censorship to deliver accurate news and provide a platform for informed discussion and debate to audiences in Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is one of the authors of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.

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