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Iran to hold trials for protesters arrested in demonstrations that began last month

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

In a bid to quell protests, Iran is bringing hundreds of people to Iran's version of justice. Security forces have arrested many people who marched after the death of Mahsa Amini, while in the custody of Iran's so-called morality police. Now trials are beginning, although with much less visibility than trials would receive elsewhere. Tara Sepehri Far is gathering what information she can by tracking the fates of defendants for Human Rights Watch.

TARA SEPEHRI FAR: They're facing charges that range from disrupting public order to a very serious charge of corruption on earth that could carry the death penalty.

INSKEEP: Corruption on earth - what is that?

SEPEHRI FAR: As you can probably already tell, it's a vaguely defined charge in Iran's penal code. The way authorities have described it in relation to the protest is actions such as using weapons or widespread use of violence and destruction of public and government properties. But it is still very unclear what evidence they use against protesters, and these charges are vaguely defined, and those who face these charges are not going to get a fair trial and have already been deprived of their due process rights.

INSKEEP: When I think of Iran as a theocracy and think of the phrase corruption on earth, I'm tempted to think this is cast somehow as a violation of Islam. Is that the origin of this charge?

SEPEHRI FAR: Correct. But Iran has codified Islamic principles into their civil code system. There's a long track record of intelligence and judicial authorities interpreting these vaguely defined national security rights in favor of protecting the state and, actually, more than the state, the authorities themselves.

INSKEEP: Are these trials public?

SEPEHRI FAR: To some extent, yes, which means there's access, that there are reportings about them through official media, but it's not the kind of public trial you would imagine. For instance, the - one of the people who has been charged with corruption on earth was deprived of access to the lawyer of his choice. That's what the lawyer has said publicly. And apparently, his family also was not allowed to be present during the trial. Independent media does not have access to those who are accused, cannot independently report or interview anyone. It's basically an opportunity for authorities to put on stage their narrative through these public indictments, including statements made by the prosecutor, the judge and so on and so forth.

INSKEEP: Do you have any idea how many people are on trial or are soon to be on trial?

SEPEHRI FAR: Well, authorities have thrown out some numbers. The spokesperson has mentioned that something about a thousand indictments has been issued by courts in Tehran province. And on top of that, we have hundreds of human rights defenders, journalists, student activists, labor activists, lawyers, who've been arrested by intelligence authorities, mostly outside these protests. We're also expecting them to be put on trial and be struck by additional charges or prison sentences.

INSKEEP: Oh, so as far as you can tell, the arrests have gone far beyond the individuals who may have been caught on this or that street.

SEPEHRI FAR: Exactly. Actually, two of the main people - we're very concerned about them - are the two journalists who contributed to the reporting of the death of Mahsa Jina Amini in the custody of Iranian police. Obviously, what they were doing was purely their journalistic job. Their names was brought up in a statement issued by the two main intelligence agencies in Iran as those operating in collaboration with foreign entities. And we're extremely concerned about their safety. Their names are Elahe Mohammadi and Niloofar Hamedi.

INSKEEP: I'm thinking about the people who protested and were arrested, and I'd like to know if you feel that it advances their cause in some way to be arrested. I should clarify what I mean. Many times in the United States and elsewhere, people will say, I'm going to be free, I'm going to live my life the way I'm determined to do it, and if you want to arrest me, it's going to be on you, and it's going to clog your court system. Do you think there are some people who feel they're advancing their cause by being put on trial in this way?

SEPEHRI FAR: People are taking these grave risks to their safety because they want to make a point. And every action that the government is doing in order to, quote-unquote, "repress" these protests is actually recentering some of the main demands of the protest, which has been about accountability and fundamental change of the behavior of the system that has been very autocratic and without any regard for rule of law and democratic norms.

INSKEEP: Do these trials, in your view, then demonstrate the very point the protesters are making?

SEPEHRI FAR: Exactly. And there's a long history of Iranian authorities using these trials for making their points. And yet we have only seen protests intensifying over the past decade, not going away, and the calls are becoming more progressive and more radical, not less.

INSKEEP: Needless to say, the Islamic Republic of Iran has lasted more than 40 years at this point and has endured any number of protests over the years and has a very strong national security state. Do you think that the government can use law enforcement to end these protests? Their version of law enforcement, I should say.

SEPEHRI FAR: It appears that one of the very few areas of the establishment that's still working and has a lot more capacity is their security apparatus. Sadly, I don't think they would hesitate to intensify the already brutal crackdown. But what I know is that regardless of where the protests go and if they are repressed or not in near future, they have changed the conversation inside the country and outside, and they have made a very clear point that what they want and what they demand is supported by large number of people domestically. Where the system is going to go with this, even if they manage to repress the protest, is unclear to me.

INSKEEP: Tara Sepehri Far researches human rights abuses in Iran for Human Rights Watch. Thanks so much.

SEPEHRI FAR: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.