Before his execution on September 12, Navid Afkari had bravely spoken about the details of his case, including that he had been forced to a crime he says he never committed. Now, says Mahmood Amiry-Moghaddam, the executive director of the Iran Human Rights organization based in Oslo, activists must build on this bravery, and keep up their pressure on the Iranian regime.
There are hundreds or possibly thousands of such cases, says Mahmood Amiry-Moghaddam, and “thanks to Navid’s bravery” in revealing the full details of his case, he has helped show “the terrible state of the legal process in Iran.”
Afkari was arrested along with his brothers Vahid and Habib in September 2018 following protests against rising prices in August. The brothers have been given sentences of 54 years and six months in prison and 74 lashes and 27 years and three months in prison and 74 lashes, respectively. In what has been widely been condemned as a trumped-up case, Navid Afkari was charged with murdering a local official. Local people say they were not even at the demonstrations.
The swell of support for Afkari’s life to be spared— from athletes, activists and journalists around the globe — was “increasing dramatically” all the time, Amiry-Moghaddam says, and in order to use Afkari’s case as a tactic to scare the Iranian public, the Iranian regime had to act swiftly.
“They were in a hurry because probably a few more days then the political cost would have been so high that they wouldn’t be able to do it, “ Amiry-Moghaddam says. “It would have been too empowering for the people.”
The Afkaris were just three out of many protesters who have been targeted, harassed and vilified in recent months, used to deliver a message to the Iranian people: do not speak out, do not demand your rights or the truth, do not tell the world about what is going on in Iran. “The reason why they do these executions is of course to spread fear, to give the message to the people that they are powerless and that authorities are stronger than they actually are,” Amiry-Moghaddam says.
But more and more, through Iranians’ activism and international attention, the regime is having to pull back some of its more brutal tactics.
Making a Difference
But has the execution of Navid Afkari shown, even to a small extent, that human rights campaigns are not having the impact they should? Did this attention paid to Afkari actually speed up his death?
What happened to the Afkari is tragic and shocking. However, Amiry-Moghaddam stresses the importance of looking at impact over a sustained period of time. “This kind of international activism can make a difference. This is a very long struggle. All the times the authorities have been forced to change their behavior. It has been because of the political cost.” In the 1980s, authorities felt confident they could get away with executing people on the streets, so they did. Today, the situation is different. The regime hasn’t reformed, it’s had to respond to international condemnation. It has changed tactics, becoming more secretive and using plainclothes agents to carry out violent acts. They avoid taking responsibility, and with it, the regime’s legitimacy has crumbled.
Amiry-Moghaddam says the Iranian regime assessed the political risk, and decided to carry out the execution. This behavior should be met with more outcry, not less. Now is precisely the time to amplify calls against human rights violations and executions, to encourage activists, the sports community, and foreign governments to take a stand, he says.
One recent example of change is the #Do_not_execute campaign, which was launched in July, protested against the death sentences of Amir Hossein Moradi, Saeed Tamjidi, and Mohammad Rajabi, three Iranians arrested during the November 2019 protests. After 11 million people used #Do_not_execute to protest against the sentences, the Iranian judiciary agreed to a retrial. “It doesn’t mean that these three are now safe,” Amiry-Moghaddam says. “But the authorities were forced to take a step back.”
Afkari’s execution was illegal because there was only one piece of evidence that allegedly proved he was guilty of charges of murdering a local official in Shiraz: his admission of guilt. But the day before Navid Afkari was executed, a forensic team paid a visit to the prison to investigate claims that he had been tortured. Afkari had retracted his confession and said he had been forced under coercion. “The only evidence that was used here to conclude that he committed the murder was his own confession,” says Amiry-Moghaddam. “There is nothing else in this case. According to the Islamic penal code, when a serious verdict results in the death sentence or a life sentence is solely based on a confession, and if the person withdraws the confession, then the verdict must be removed.”
The Long Battle Against Executions and Harsh Sentences
International anger has had an impact. “We have followed the Iranian authorities’ use of the death penalty over the last 15 years. It just makes people so angry every time,” says Amiry-Moghaddam. And this anger has had an impact: Today, death sentences are still carried out, a situation that remains unacceptable for campaigners. “But it used to be an average of 365 executions a year, and now We are down to 30.”
Stoning is another punishment that Iranian authorities now avoid, despite the fact that it is permissible under Iranian law. Sustained campaigns against stoning women as punishment for adultery and other offenses, including a high profile intervention in 2010 in the case of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani by Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, the then French president’s wife, mean that no one has been stoned in Iran for 10 years. “They don’t do it because of the political cost,” says Amiry-Moghaddam.
He says drug-related executions have also stopped. “On average, between 2010 and 2017, we had at least one execution for drug offenses every day. They were forced to change the law.”
“They are being pushed back,” he says. They are completely incompetent, and the world is seeing this. “They are holding power only based on use of violence. And how long can they do that?”
“If they are met by strong condemnation and I even stronger campaign by by by people inside Iran, in civil society, then they might think twice next time. When we are able to save a life, that’s a huge victory.”
And when lives are lost, these campaigns — international or local, planned or spontaneous, online or on the streets — must speak louder. The world must see this as a long-term struggle, Mahmood Amiry-Moghaddam says. Voices and campaigns and outrage have made a difference. And they must continue to do so.