Outrage Over Death Sentences For Iran's Dissenters

Iranian media reported this week that five people arrested in the protests following Iran's presidential election have been sentenced to death. Tehran says the prisoners had connections to "counter-revolutionary groups," but activists say Iran is going too far in persecuting dissenters. Host Scott Simon talks to Hadi Ghaemi, director of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran.

SCOTT SIMON, host:

Thousands of people were arrested in Iran this past summer when protests erupted over that country's disputed presidential election. This week, it was reported that five of those who were arrested have been sentenced to death. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has called news of the death sentences distressing, and said it's indicative of how the government of Iran regards its own people. Tehran's provincial court says the five are members of, or have connections to, what it calls counter-revolutionary groups.

We're joined now by Hadi Ghaemi, director of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran. He joins us from New York. Mr. Ghaemi, thanks very much for being with us.

Mr. HADI GHAEMI (International Campaign for Human Rights): Thank you for having me.

SIMON: And what can you tell us about these five prisoners?

Mr. GHAEMI: These five prisoners who are sentenced to death are accused of having played a role in the post-election unrest, but we do know in detail about them, that they were actually arrested well before the election.

SIMON: Mm-hmm.

Mr. GHAEMI: And because their connections are to groups who are kind of fringe opposition groups, we believe they're being scapegoated with these execution sentences to spread fear through the popular movement that has been opposing the government.

SIMON: You know, we've had spokespeople on from the Iranian government here who say look, our democracy is new and fragile, and we can't risk counter-revolutionary forces overthrowing it.

Mr. GHAEMI: But that is no reasoning to have no due process and justice. We are seeing right now that the number of executions in Iran are spiking. Since the election, at least 150 people have been put to death. And we're seeing increased number of political prisoners executed. Just last week, we had a Kurdish activist put to death even though the lower court had sentenced him to 10 years of prison. But the appeals court, in contradiction to Iran's own law, increased the sentence to execution. And we believe these are politically motivated acts by hardliners in the government who want to sow fear in the population and give the signal that they will hold on to power by any means necessary.

SIMON: That's worth repeating - did you say at least 150 people have been put to death?

Mr. GHAEMI: That's correct, since June. In general, Iran executes more people than any other country per capita. On absolute basis only China, which has the population of about 18 times Iran, executes more people.

SIMON: And as a generalization, are they people who have been accused of murder or violent crime, but something political, social?

Mr. GHAEMI: Both. But we simply don't have any transparency to know that even people accused of murder and violent crimes, if they really have committed those. The government doesn't even release their names or the process which led to the sentences issued against them.

SIMON: Mr. Ghaemi, what is the effect of all these death sentences on opposition, or freedom of thought and assembly in Iran?

Mr. GHAEMI: Well, it certainly will have a chilling affect. But I believe after the election a majority of people, especially young people, have joined what I consider to be a civil rights movement, not only with regard to the political issues and the election but with a broader rights movement in the society. And the main characteristic of this movement is nonviolence. People who are writing and analyzing this movement from inside Iran constantly emphasize that they want to put an end to the culture of violence. And they see these executions as part of a state terrorism that spreads violence and retaliation.

So I think that movement will go on, and we're seeing in response to these executions a large anti-death penalty campaign is starting in Iran. Activists and families of victims are going to prisons at the time of executions. They are doing much lobbying and trying to persuade the judiciary that these people do not deserve death, and this is only increasing the violence throughout the society and will not solve anything.

SIMON: Mr. Ghaemi, in your judgment, what kind of attention is the world paying? Is the world community major powers, the United Nations, so focused on whether or not Iran is developing a nuclear weapon it's in some ways willing to overlook these kinds of cases?

Mr. GHAEMI: Yes, I'm afraid that is the case. The Iranian people and activist community have been extremely disappointed at how the international community has reacted to the post-election violence and now these kind of death sentences being issued. They feel like they're really being left on their own, and not enough attention is being paid.

SIMON: Hadi Ghaemi, director of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran. Thank you very much.

Mr. GHAEMI: Thank you.

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