The article suggests that “four years after his death, Beheshti has come to embody the spirit of resistance in Iran, in an ongoing struggle [between] freedom of expression and government repression.” It also points out that the final entry in his blog pointed out that regime authorities had specifically threatened him with death, and that he vowed to not remain silent even in the face of such conditions.
After being arrested on October 30, 2012, Beheshti was subject to a series of beatings lasting until November 3, at which point he died from internal bleeding, with signs of hemorrhaging found in his lungs, liver, kidneys, and brain. Forty-one other persons being held as political prisoners in Evin Prison at the time signed a letter testifying to the fact that signs of torture had been clearly visible on his body.
Because of the public attention given to the case, it was apparently all but impossible for it to be swept entirely under the rug. But the Iranian judiciary held only one person, Akbar Taghizadeh, responsible for Beheshti’s death and sentenced him to only three years in prison for manslaughter. This verdict has been strongly protested by Beheshti’s family, and Global Voices insists the prosecution was part of an effort to falsely portray Beheshti’s death as an isolated incident.
Interestingly, the sentence handed down against Taghizadeh is shorter than those given to various individuals for their peaceful political or social activities. Notable recent examples include Narges Mohammadi, whose sentence of 16 years for founding an anti-death penalty group was upheld on appeal in October, and Robin Shahini, who was apparently targeted for an 18 year sentence based solely on his residing in the US and his publication of online posts critical of the Iranian regime.
What’s more, Global Voices notes that “the regime has not shied away from death sentences for online activities.” It also emphasizes that a digital record of activism puts Iranians at particular risk. Iranian law allows for the death penalty in instances of a wide range of vaguely-defined offenses such as insulting the sacred, spreading corruption, or enmity against God. And long periods of pre-trial detention frequently suggest that authorities initiate cases in absence of evidence or charges, then build the strongest case from various online records and personal histories.
Global Voices names two persons who were given death sentences for their political activism in 2011. And the article points out that the broader crackdown continues to this day. It remains to be seen whether this will result in additional death sentences, although it has already been reported that Iran has carried out a number of recent mass executions, mostly of non-violent drug offenders.
It is worth noting, however, that some members of the Iranian parliament, as well as Iranian Justice Minister Mostafa Pourmohammadi, have expressed interest in reforming the death penalty law to reduce the number of instances in which it is applied to drug traffickers. But as Iran News Update pointed out previously, Pourmohammadi specifically advocated this change on the basis of pragmatic and not humanitarian concerns.
Although Iranian officials have taken pains to deny any foreign influence, the sheer number of executions and other killings has brought much scrutiny to the Islamic Republic. In this context, death penalty reform may serve much the same purpose as the trial of Akbar Taghizadeh, namely to given the false impression of having addressed domestic and international concerns, but without actually changing the regime’s repressive policies.
There are other examples, also, of current or former regime officials being prosecuted or otherwise punished. But like the Taghizadeh case and Pourmohammadi’s death penalty discussions, the focus is generally not on human rights issues. For instance, Fox News reported on Thursday that former prosecutor Saeed Mortazavi, a recognized serial abuser of human rights and a man internationally dubbed the “butcher of the press,” had been convicted in an Iranian court.
The charges against him, however, relate not to these human rights abuses – including the fatal torture of at least three anti-government protestors – but rather to financial corruption for the waste of public funds while Mortazavi headed Iran’s Social Security Organization. This situation led Hadi Ghaemi, the executive direct of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, to say that the sentence is “yet another example of rampant impunity in Iran. No justice is being delivered here… [and] sentencing him to flogging, if meant to demonstrate a serious punishment, is just physical barbarity that does nothing to hold him accountable in any meaningful way.”
That impunity is arguably reflected in Western entities’ treatment of the Islamic Republic following last year’s nuclear agreement, which resulted in large-scale relief from economic sanctions against Iran. Both during and after the negotiations leading up to that agreement, various human rights organizations accused the United States and Europe of putting too much focus on the nuclear issue and the prospect of renewed trade ties with Iran, to the detriment of human rights advocacy.
It is possible that the half-hearted prosecution of certain human rights abusers, or the theoretical discussion of death penalty reform, has helped to justify this trend, in line with US President Barack Obama’s claims that the nuclear deal would promote moderation inside the Iranian regime. But the crackdown against activists, web users, and dual nationals has undermined the notion of moderation. Nevertheless, there is considerable pressure from Western businesses and some government representatives, to continue de-sanctioning the Islamic Republic and pursuing investment therein.
In one example with particular relevance to human rights abuses and other illicit Iranian behaviors, the Wall Street Journal reported on Thursday that Greece had broken away from the policies of the US and the European Union with regard to one Iranian bank, Bank Saderat.
In spite of the general relief from nuclear-related sanctions under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, sanctions on Bank Saderat were meant to remain in place over the long term, as a result of the financial institution’s apparent ties to Iran’s support of terrorism throughout the world. Twenty-seven members of the EU were prepared to continue enforcing those sanctions, which Iran was in the process of challenging, but the Greek government took it upon itself to block those sanctions in hopes of facilitating trade and financial transactions with Iran.
The Wall Street Journal suggests that this move may set off a trend whereby other Western nations, eager to regain full access to Iran’s oil and expert markets, similarly undermine the established sanctions regime. This seemingly gratifies early criticisms of the nuclear deal, which suggested that provisions for snap-back of economic sanctions were grounded in fantasy and would be difficult to implement without reestablishing international will for enforcement actions against Iran.
Not only that, but the Greek move broadens those criticisms beyond nuclear-related sanctions, demonstrating that some countries now feel comfortable lifting pressure on Iran over its support of terrorism. If this is the case, it is arguably not long before some Western entities decide to similarly neglect pressures over human rights. Indeed, some human rights advocates would argue that the West as a whole has been doing this since even before the conclusion of the nuclear negotiations.