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Women’s Rights Activist on Protests Sweeping Iran, the Intensifying Gov’t Crackdown & Executions

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Human rights groups say over 14,000 people have been arrested across Iran since protests began in September following the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini. At least 400 people have reportedly been sentenced to up to 10 years in prison, and multiple people have been executed. The protests are “the longest sustained protests since the start of the revolution,” says Sussan Tahmasebi, a women’s rights activist and feminist from Iran joining us from Brussels, Belgium, who says women and youth are sick of the status quo and are seeking fundamental freedoms. “Iranians voted multiple times for over two decades for some process of reform … but the state has not given in to those demands,” she says. “What we’re seeing now is the result.” Tahmasebi is the director of FEMENA, an organization that promotes gender equality and supports women human rights defenders, and co-founder of the Iran Civil Society Training and Research Center, as well as the One Million Signatures Campaign, a grassroots effort working to end gender-biased laws in Iran.

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AMY GOODMAN: Iranian activist Mohsen Shekari singing at the Tehran cafe he worked at with friends. Last week, the 23-year-old Shekari became the first person executed for taking part in nationwide anti-government protests sparked by the killing of Mahsa Amini. For those who are listening on the radio or just reading this, you can go to to see the video.

This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, joined by Democracy Now!’s Nermeen Shaikh. Hi, Nermeen.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Hi, Amy. And welcome to our listeners and viewers across the country and around the world.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Iran has been expelled from the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women after a campaign led by the United States. This comes as human rights groups are expressing growing alarm over Iran’s crackdown on protests that began mid-September, sparked by the death of the Kurdish Iranian woman, 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in the custody of Iran’s so-called morality police. The Human Rights Activist News Agency reports over 18,000 people have been arrested across Iran since the protests began. Tehran’s prosecutor general has said 400 people have been sentenced to up to 10 years in prison.

The 26-year-old Iranian pro soccer player Amir Nasr-Azadani has reportedly been sentenced to death for his involvement in the demonstrations. FIFPRO, the global soccer players’ union, said it was “shocked and sickened” that Nasr-Azadani faces execution.

On Monday, Iranian authorities publicly executed 23-year-old Majidreza Rahnavard. He was hanged from a metal crane with his hands and feet bound and a black bag over his head. He was convicted of killing two members of paramilitary forces in a secretive trial where he wasn’t allowed to choose his own lawyer or challenge the evidence against him. When his mother visited him, she was reportedly not notified he’d be executed soon after. He’s the second person executed in Iran linked to the recent anti-government protests. Four days before he was hanged, 23-year-old Mohsen Shekari was executed after being convicted of, quote, “waging war against God.”

We’re joined right now by Sussan Tahmasebi. She’s a women’s rights activist and a feminist from Iran who’s joining us from Brussels, Belgium. She’s the director of FEMENA, an organization that promotes gender equality and supports women human rights defenders. Sussan Tahmasebi also co-founded the Iran Civil Society Training and Research Center, as well as the One Million Signatures Campaign, a grassroots effort working to end gender-biased laws in Iran. She herself was summoned to court in Iran in 2007 due to her organizing a peaceful gathering against gender-discriminatory laws.

Sussan Tahmasebi, welcome to Democracy Now!

SUSSAN TAHMASEBI: Thank you for having me.

AMY GOODMAN: There is so much to talk about. We are now reporting one execution after another of the anti-government protesters. Can you talk about what’s happening on the ground in Iran?

SUSSAN TAHMASEBI: Yes. Thank you for having me, and thank you very much for paying attention to Iran and what’s happening inside Iran.

As you explained, these protests have now been going on for over three months. They were sparked by the death in custody of Mahsa Zhina Amini, a young 22-year-old Kurdish woman who was arrested by the morality police for not observing proper hijab, and she died in custody. I mean, she was beaten in custody, according to reports, moved to hospital and died there a few days later. And protests erupted in response to that death because people were so angry at the senselessness of her death. And I think many women could understand what she went through, because they live their lives in fear of being arrested by the morality police.

And I think people were also very angry by the lack of accountability on the part of Iranian authorities and the impunity with which they kill Iranians so easily. These protests are extremely significant, because they’re the longest sustained protests since the start of the revolution, since 43 years ago. But we’ve had many protests in between, and protesters have been killed during those protests, as well, in 2017, 2019, which was an extremely bloody protest — according to some counts, 1,500 people. I think Amnesty International has 300-and-some documented deaths due to the protests, but some accounts also say that it’s 1,500 people were killed. So, people are very angry at this crisis of impunity inside Iran.

And these protests over the last three months have been dealt with very violently, as well. Over nearly 500 people have been killed — 480, I think, is the last figure that the Human Rights Activists Network reported. Sixty-eight of them are children who have been killed. And the majority of those who have been killed — I mean, at least 50% of those who have been killed are from ethnic minority regions, Kurdish areas and Balochi areas. In Balochistan, just in one day, on Black Friday, which was September 30th, 103 people were shot dead. These were peaceful protesters leaving Friday prayers. And most of them were shot in the back, running away from bullets that the police were shooting at them.

Now, as you mentioned, the violence has reached a new level, where protesters are being sentenced to death. They’re being charged with enmity with God or waging war against God, and they’re being sentenced to death in these sham trials that, you know, don’t take very long, where people are not afforded — allowed to have access to their lawyers. And it’s extremely concerning.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Sussan, you mentioned the brutal crackdown, in particular, against minorities in Iran. Could you explain why the crackdown has been especially bad in these minority areas? Those aren’t the areas where protests have even been concentrated, or are they?

SUSSAN TAHMASEBI: Well, I should state, before I explain this, that these protests are not sectarian in nature. They’re national protests, and they involve women and a lot of young people, teenagers, Iranians in their twenties, who are sick of the status quo. They want fundamental change. They’re asking for fundamental freedoms. Many of them are also asking for regime change. But, unfortunately, the Iranian state decided to take a sectarian approach to the crushing of the protests, because if they treat the protests as if they’re being fomented by separatist movements, then it becomes easier for them to crack down and use violence. But, fortunately, I think the Iranians are — we’re smarter than that to buy into this, into this plan, the security plan that they had.

I should mention that Zhina Mahsa Amini was Kurdish, so one of the first places where protests started was in her home city, Saqqez, during her burial, and many other Kurdish cities. The political groups — the political Kurdish groups, many of them, in Iraqi Kurdistan called for general strikes. So the Kurdish area has played a significant role in sustaining these protests. And many of the Kurdish cities have continuously protested. They’ve also faced a lot of violence. Javanrud, Mahabad, Saqqez, Sanandaj — all of these cities have faced a lot of violence. And many of these cities have been turned into war zones, where you see war artillery moved to these cities and people being shot down. And roads to these cities have also been closed off, so people wanting to go to these cities to provide medical support to citizens there or for blood drives are prevented from going to those cities if their tags are from a different city. So, even if you live there and your tags are from a different city, you’re not allowed to go to those cities. So, Kurdish areas, for the — one of the main reasons is for this area, because of the sustained protests.

But the Balochi region also has faced a significant crackdown. And again, it was part of this ploy by the Iranian security agencies to make this look like a separatist movement. So, on September 30th, following the death of Mahsa Amini, protests — I mean, Friday prayer goers in Zahedan were very angry, both because of what happened nationally but also because they were upset because of an alleged rape of a young 15-year-old girl by a security — by a police in a city in Balochistan. And they started marching towards the police station to ask for accountability. And in just one hour, 103 of these prayer goers, protesters — whatever you want to call them — peaceful, unarmed, were shot and killed. And in one hour. Most of them were shot in the back, meaning that they were running away from the police station, running away from the bullets. And then, subsequent protests across Balochistan, we’ve had more killings.

So, about 50% of all the people who’ve been killed are either — you know, are from Balochi and Kurdish areas. So this is significant, despite the fact that this is not a sectarian protest, but the bulk of the violence has been directed at these groups.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Sussan, you mentioned, as we did, that now two prisoners, people charged with participation in the protests — although that’s not what they’ve been convicted of — have now been publicly executed. And this is in addition, of course, what you’re talking about, protesters who have been killed during the protests. Could you explain why you think Iran is now publicly executing these prisoners? It’s been a long while since a public execution was carried out, even though Iran is among the countries with the highest rates of imposing the death penalty, second only to China.

SUSSAN TAHMASEBI: Yeah, well, I think that this has two messages. One is to instill fear among protesters that this could be your fate. It’s not that you just go to prison, but you could get killed. And the second message is to send a message to the security forces who have carried out the bulk of these crackdowns, that we are with you, and if there are people who are accused of killing or engaging in violent behavior against the security forces, against the Basij militia, against the IRGC, we’re going to make them suffer, and we’re going to make them pay.

I have to say that, you know, it’s only the second protester, Majidreza Rahnavard, who was hanged publicly. The first one wasn’t hanged publicly, who was Mohsen Shekari. Both of them were 23-year-olds. And Mohsen Shekari was charged with shutting down the street, preventing traffic from moving, so it’s really — didn’t cause any harm to anybody. This is according to what he was charged with, which is a source of concern and question for human rights observers or for those who are observing the judicial process. But, nevertheless, even according to the Islamic Republic of Iran, he wasn’t charged with killing or creating any sort of bodily injury or harm to anyone, but still he was charged as somebody who was waging war against God. And there’s been a lot of criticism of this, including from religious leaders or legal experts, who say that, even according to their own laws, this is wrong. But, nevertheless, he was — both of them were arrested, tried, sentenced and executed in a matter of a few weeks.

And the head of the judiciary a couple — I guess about a week ago, mentioned that — very proudly, that they have conducted these trials very quickly. And we see that they have conducted these trials very quickly, because they don’t meet any standard of fair trial practice. Most importantly is that most of these prisoners and people standing for trial, these protesters, don’t have access to a lawyer of their choice. At best, they’re given a court-appointed lawyer. And these court-appointed lawyers are people who formerly, most of them, had worked within the judiciary, and they’re not going to serve the best interest of their clients. They’re going to serve the best interest of the state and the judiciary. And many of them, we think, are pressured, tortured psychologically or physically, and forced into false confessions. So, it’s really very concerning that there is no due process, and it’s certainly not justice.

AMY GOODMAN: Sussan, I wanted to ask you also about the 26-year-old Iranian soccer player named Amir Nasr-Azadani, who has reportedly been sentenced to death also for his involvement in the demonstrations. You have the global soccer players’ union, FIFPRO, tweeting, ”FIFPRO is shocked and sickened by reports that professional footballer Amir Nasr-Azadani faces execution in Iran after campaigning for women’s rights and basic freedom in his country. We stand in solidarity with Amir and call for the immediate removal of his punishment.” If you could talk about him, and also the entire Iranian soccer team — I don’t know if it was every one of them — who refused to sing the Iranian national anthem at the FIFA World Cup in Qatar?

SUSSAN TAHMASEBI: Sure. So, I don’t know if — I have a list of 10 people who have been sentenced to execution. Azadani is not on that list. This, I just — and I’m following the list of Follow Up Iran, which is a group of volunteer activists who are documenting, either through contact with lawyers, family members, human rights activists inside the country, what’s happening to prisoners inside the country. And they’ve managed to document 10 sentences that have been issued — 10 sentences, execution sentences, that have been issued. But it doesn’t mean that he’s not or he doesn’t face potential execution. There are scores of other people who are facing charges of enmity with God and also waging war against God, both of which carry the death sentence. And this could be for acts of violence, you know, charges of acts of violence, or shutting down streets, or assumptions about the fact that they had violent intent. So, it’s not really — if they’re charged with this, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they committed a crime, unfortunately. There’s very little trust in the judicial system. So, I don’t have his name on there, and I think it’s important for us to make sure that we talk about the death — especially the death sentences when they’re verified. But it doesn’t mean that he might not be facing the death sentence. But I can’t speak to it, because I don’t have that information, and I don’t have that information from this particular source that I’m following on the executions.

I think — you know, you asked about the soccer players. Yes, so, the soccer players and many athletes have expressed solidarity with the Iranian people, and they face repercussions when they go back to their country. So, this is — you know, this is a trend. I think the Islamic Republic is doing — is sort of cracking down on these protests very violently. It’s doing things that it finds itself — it finds very difficult to defend. So, it’s forcing people to — and trying to prevent them from speaking up about it. It’s arresting people. It’s pressuring — putting them under pressure. But it’s also providing a lot of false narratives as to what it’s done and how it’s done. So, you know, if they kill people, they bring actors on TV, or they force the family members of people who have been killed to come on TV, to deny the facts. So, I think they know what they’re doing is very wrong, but, unfortunately, they continue to do it.

AMY GOODMAN: So, speaking of sports, but of course it’s not just sports news, the Iranian rock climber Elnaz Rekabi, who climbed in South Korea without her hijab, comes home, supposedly to a welcome, but then we recently heard that her home was destroyed. What do you understand about that and also what’s happened to her?

SUSSAN TAHMASEBI: Yeah. So, there was a lot of speculation about what happened with her after that very brave act of defiance in the competitions in Seoul. People didn’t know where she was, so there was a lot of speculation of where she was. And when she came to Iran in the airport, she was escorted away from the crowds that had come to cheer her in support of her. And we heard news that her family was under a lot of pressure, that she was under a lot of pressure. So, I believe it’s probably very true that — and also what we hear is that athletes, before they leave the country, they have to put up a sum of money to be able to leave the country. I don’t know how true it is. It makes sense. But it becomes a leverage point against those athletes — what they say, what they do, how they behave — and, you know, forcing them to come back in circumstances like Elnaz Rekabi’s circumstances.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Sussan, what has been — I mean, apart, of course, from these horrific executions and arrests and deaths, there have been some reports that the Iranian government is somehow responding also positively to the protests — Iran’s attorney general having announced that both parliament and the judiciary are reviewing the hijab laws, some people reporting that the so-called morality police are less visible now on the streets. Do you think any of this is important?

SUSSAN TAHMASEBI: Actually, I don’t think any of it is true. That’s the thing. I think people were expecting, and maybe it would have been logical, for them to really review these horrific policies, these very violent policies of enforcing women’s — you know, enforcing a particular dress code on women, policing women’s bodies. And there was some news about — I think there was a press conference by a judiciary official who mentioned something about how this is an issue; the morality police has to do with the police, not the judiciary. And people took that as if the morality police was going to be dismantled. But then we immediately heard other accounts from other sources within the Iranian government that denied that.

Unfortunately, the Iranian state has dismantled every possible opportunity and mechanism to create reform or to respond to the demands of the Iranian people. You know, Iranians voted multiple times for over two decades for some process of reform or some hope of reform, but the state has not given in to those demands and has not allowed for any form of reform. And I think that this is the result. What we’re seeing now is the result, because these extreme hard-liners have a very different vision for the future of Iran and the future of Iranians than Iranians themselves. And there seems to be no process of negotiation, unfortunately. They’re not engaging in any kind of negotiation, and they’re not backing down at all. And, you know, I think it’s unfortunate. Something has to give. And it seems that, you know — and I think Iranians are continuing to stay in the streets. They’re still very angry. So we’ll have to see how things turn out.

AMY GOODMAN: Sussan, I wanted to ask you about Iran being ousted from the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, the move initiated by the U.S., of course in response to Tehran’s crackdown on the recent protests, the vote 29 to 8, with 16 nations abstaining. This is the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Linda Thomas-Greenfield.

LINDA THOMAS-GREENFIELD: These women and activists have appealed to us, the United Nations, for support. They made their request to us loud and clear: Remove Iran from the Commission on the Status of Women. The reason why is straightforward. The commission is the premier U.N. body for promoting gender equality and empowering women. It cannot do its important work if it’s being undermined from within. Iran’s membership at this moment is an ugly stain on the commission’s credibility.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. talking about Iran being ousted from the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women. Talk about the response to the U.S. pushing so hard for this. You know, we’re also covering the Africa Summit that has taken place for three days in Washington, D.C. Biden just addressed them yesterday. But the concern of the U.S. talking down to other countries and this being seen as a Western push — I mean, when you look at what’s happening in Iran clearly coming from the grassroots, but what this means with the U.S. so clearly pushing for their removal?

SUSSAN TAHMASEBI: Well, I want to say that the removal of Iran is a positive signal to the Iranian people that the U.N. is going to hold Iran accountable for not only violations that are going on during these protests, but violations against women’s rights and long-standing discrimination against women, or at least it’s going to try to hold Iran accountable. So, I think, in that sense, it’s a very positive thing. And I hope that it means that the U.N. will take a stand against any country — not just Iran but any country, because there are multiple countries that actually consistently violate not only the rights of citizens, but also the rights of women, that they have deep, deep discrimination embedded within their laws and within their implementation of policies. And they should have no place on the Commission on the Status of Women, which is supposed to be the place where women’s empowerment happens within the U.S.

And I have to say, the Commission on the Status of Women meets yearly, and it’s a great place for civil society and government planners to come together and network and strategize about women’s rights, but it’s also a largely ineffective body because it’s overrun, largely, by these anti-rights actors. Some of them are countries like Iran, Saudi Arabia, Russia, the Vatican, that really have a disdain for women’s advancement and women’s rights, and they see women in a particular very patriarchal frame, and they have been pushing back on all of rights.

So, at the end of the two-week session where these people come together, policymakers and civil society also, there’s a resolution, but it’s not a binding resolution. And every year there’s fighting over the language, because they’re afraid of losing ground on the language, because if they lose ground on the language, then they’re going to lose real rights in the Human Rights Council.

So, I hope that this is not only a measure against Iran, which I think I welcome that, because it sends a strong message to Iran and to Iranians, but I hope it’s a message to all anti-rights actors within the U.N. system that push back on women’s rights, that those people who — or, those groups who believe in a women’s advancement are going to come in and take over this body and not allow anti-rights actors to be pushing their anti-women’s agenda in places like the Commission on the Status of Women.

So, I think the U.S. leading it, I think some people had problems with it. We’re hearing from back channels. There was some nervousness about Europe coming on board. But Europe did come on board. And see that the Global South, largely, has either abstained or voted against the measure. We hope that the Global South will step up and support Iranians for their quest for freedom and hold Iran accountable for the violations of rights, not only of protesters but long-standing violation of women’s rights.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Sussan, could you, before we end, talk about what you think the global response should be, from the Global South but also from the EU and the U.S.? You had previously been extremely critical, for instance, about sanctions on Iran, saying that they harm women, in particular. But earlier this month, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved a bipartisan resolution reaffirming U.S. support for Iranian protesters and calling on the Biden administration to impose additional sanctions on Iranian officials and entities. The EU and Britain have taken similar steps. And many Iranians in the diaspora are supporting these steps, even those who previously opposed sanctions. What are you hearing about what protesters in Iran are calling for from the international community?

SUSSAN TAHMASEBI: Well, I think the international community needs to act in a coordinated manner to press Iran through whatever means it can to stop the executions. We now have, you know, 10 people who have been sentenced to execution that we know for sure, possibly more than that, and then many, many more who could potentially face execution. So, this is — I think this needs to be top priority, through whatever diplomatic channels or whatever pressure means, to stop the executions of peaceful protesters and to respect the rights, further, to release the protesters, release the scores and scores of human rights defenders, including nearly 170 women human rights defenders that we’ve documented who have been in prison since the start of the protests.

I think, in terms of sanctions, yes, I have consistently been opposed to economic sanctions, because I think that they’re broad. They’re indiscriminate. They target and harm ordinary citizens, especially marginalized communities the most. I’m not opposed to targeted sanctions on individuals for human rights violations. I think that’s great, that we should see more of that. But I think, in terms of if there’s entities that are being sanctioned, that there should be a harm assessment done before those sanctions are implemented, to see if the sanctions are going to harm Iranians, if it’s going to harm their access to the internet, for example, or if it’s going to harm their ability to continue with their protests or their freedoms in some way. Canada did sanctions against heads of the IRGC, which is fine, because, before, the U.S. did sanctions against IRGC that included 11,000 ordinary people who had to serve military service. So, there hadn’t been harm analysis. And I think that harm analysis is really important with respect to sanctions.

AMY GOODMAN: Sussan Tahmasebi, we want to thank you for being with us, women’s rights activist, feminist from Iran, director of FEMENA, an organization that promotes gender equality and supports women’s rights defenders, speaking to us from Brussels.

Coming up, Qatar is facing accusations it’s torturing an imprisoned World Cup whistleblower. We’ll speak with his brother. Back in 30 seconds.

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