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Source: DW

Dec 19, 2022

Dozens of jailed anti-regime protesters in Iran are facing execution for waging "war against God." Lawyers and prominent Shiite scholars sharply criticize the judiciary.

Iranian authorities have executed two young protesters so far in connection with the ongoing nationwide unrest that has shaken the country's Islamic clerical establishment in recent months.   

Majidreza Rahnavard, 23, was hanged in public after being sentenced to death by a court in the northeastern city of Mashhad for killing two members of the security forces with a knife, the judiciary's Mizan Online news agency reported last week.

Four days earlier, Iran executed Mohsen Shekari, also 23, for wounding a member of the security forces. It was the first announced case of the death penalty being used against a protester.

Authorities said they had also been convicted of "moharebeh" — or waging "war against God," a charge that carries the death penalty under Iran's Shariah or Islamic law. The judiciary is accusing dozens of other protesters of war against God. 

"The protesters are not waging war against God and against the Islamic order," Ayatollah Morteza Moghtadai, an Iranian Shiite scholar, and deputy chairman of the Society of Seminary Teachers of Qom, told the country's ILNA news agency on December 12.

Moghtadai is the former president of the Iranian Court of Justice and teaches at the theological seminary in Qom, a city sacred to Shiite Muslims. "The protesters were demonstrating for their rights. But the security forces have prevented them from exercising their rights."

What does 'war against God' mean?

The accusation of "war against God" is considered one of the most serious in Iran. But the crime is not clearly defined and no one knows what it exactly means, offering room for interpretation.

The judiciary is now applying the term in its broadest sense to intimidate the protesters.

Rights groups have slammed the legal process, describing it as a show trial.

To impose the death penalty, one must have committed murder, Ayatollah Morteza Moghtadai, an Iranian Shiite scholar, and deputy chairman of the Society of Seminary Teachers of Qom, said, adding that this was clearly not the case when it came to the first execution. 

Mohsen Shekari had taken part in a protest against the government in Tehran, blocking a street in the process. While doing so, he allegedly injured a member of the Basij paramilitary force led by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.

"The judiciary is losing its credibility," warned criminal law professor Mohsen Borhani at a recent event at Imam Sadiq University, which was founded after the 1979 Islamic Revolution and trains leaders in the state apparatus.

"More than half of society no longer believes us," Borhani lamented at the event, adding, "Protesters are being tried in summary trials. 'War against God' must be proven. Where is the evidence?"

Majid-Resa Rahnaward was also sentenced to death in a summary trial. He was sentenced to death for killing two members of the Basij and injuring four other people, according to the judiciary's Mizan Online website.

"How is an ordinary citizen supposed to know that armed men in plain clothes beating citizens with sticks are members of the paramilitary Basij militia and not terrorists who have mingled with people to kill them?" journalist Sadra Mohaghegh asked in a tweet.

Regime struggles to put an end to protests

Iran has seen mass anti-regime protests since the death of a young Kurdish woman, the 22-year-old Jina Mahsa Amini, in the custody of "morality police," who had arrested her for allegedly not wearing the hijab, or Islamic head scarf, appropriately.

According to human rights organizations, about 18,000 protesters have been arrested so far. At least 11 of them have been convicted of "war against God."

"It's going to get worse because anger and grief are mobilizing families, friends and acquaintances of the killed protesters," Alireza, a student in the city of Qazvin whose real name has been withheld, told DW.

The city — located about 130 kilometers from the capital Tehran — has about half a million residents. 

"Plainclothes security forces are carrying out checks everywhere in the city, including at the university," the 26-year-old said.

"I don't know how long they will go to such lengths to monitor us. But the wave of protests is returning. Right now we are on strike at the university and not attending classes. A lot of people are doing that. That's why many classes have been canceled."

To put an end to the protests, at least at universities, Iranian authorities claim they are seeking a "dialogue."

Several universities, for instance, organized events for Iran's Student Day on December 7 and invited government officials to answer students' questions.

At Tehran University, President Ebrahim Raisi gave a speech in person, after which some students were allowed to ask him questions.

"These events are mainly attended by well-behaved students who are loyal to the system," said Fatemeh, a 25-year-old student at Al-Zahra University in Tehran, whose real name has been withheld.

Al-Zahra is the only university in Iran that exclusively admits female students and has strict admission rules.

"Since the death of Jina Mahsa Amini, there have been protests in our university as well. I am really surprised by the courage of my fellow female students. Before, it was Tehran University that was always at the forefront of political actions. This time, everyone is protesting."

Significance of Student Day rallies

Tehran University is considered the most prestigious educational institution in the country.

Nearly 70 years ago, on December 7, 1953, three students at the university were shot dead by soldiers of the then-ruling Shah's army.

The reason for the unrest was a coup that toppled the administration of Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh, the only democratically elected government in Iran's recent history. The coup was aided by the US Central Intelligence Agency and the UK's MI6 spy agency.

After the coup, the Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi returned as ruler and rejected democratic reforms. The three murdered students became a symbol of resistance.

After the 1979 revolution and the fall of the Shah, December 7 was declared Student Day. Since then, commemorative events and rallies have been held annually on this day.

Over the past 20 years, these rallies have repeatedly provided an occasion for protest actions against the current regime.

"We will continue to fight for democracy and freedom," students at seven major universities in Tehran announced in a joint statement on Student Day.

Students confront officials

Videos of rallies at various universities have been posted to the internet, as well as videos from a day earlier of the events at Sharif University.

The mayor of Tehran, Alireza Zakani, had met with students at the university and was confronted with many critical questions.

A female student even went on stage without a headscarf and said: "At least the Shah had so much dignity that he left when he saw the mass protests against him in the country."

In the end, Zakani was escorted out by students chanting slogans like, "Death to the dictator."

Students who participate in such protests face harsh punishments.

The case of Saba Rayani offers an indication of how risky it is for those who protest.

She was sentenced to six months in prison and 30 lashes for merely taking part in a peaceful demonstration at the university. She received her sentence on Student Day.

by: Shabnam von Hein

This article was originally written in German.

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