On Wednesday, the National Council of Resistance of Iran hosted a virtual conference on Iran’s human rights situation, just days after the Iranian regime defied international appeals by carrying out the death sentence for a celebrated wrestling champion, Navid Afkari. The 27-year-old athlete was arrested in 2018 for taking part in an anti-government protest in the city of Shiraz. Regime authorities apparently used this as a pretense for charging him with the murder of a water company security guard, despite a lack of physical evidence or eyewitness testimony.

Afkari was convicted after being tortured into providing a confession, and his dual capital sentences were upheld on appeal last month. His hanging on Saturday took place without the judiciary having first set a date for the execution. Arbitrary implementation of death sentences is a common practice in the Islamic Republic, though this often occurs after long periods of imprisonment on death row, during which time a condemned inmate might be moved to solitary confinement many times in order to further obscure the prospective date of their execution.

Afkari’s expedient hanging was arguably a sign of the regime’s concerns about mounting international pressure, as numerous policymakers, human rights groups, and sporting authorities had called for him to be granted a re-trial under verifiably fair conditions. Tehran had previously attempted to counter foreign criticism by broadcasting at least one state media package that purported to make the case for Afkari’s guilt. But many experts on Iranian human rights issues were quick to highlight the similarities between that propaganda and the hundreds of other known instances of the regime broadcasting prisoners’ forced confessions.

Iran Will Not Remain Silent on Navid Afkari’s Execution

This continuity between Afkari’s case and various other examples of political imprisonment and politically-motivated execution was a major focus of Wednesday’s NCRI conference, which features speeches from several British and European lawmakers. The coalition of pro-democracy opposition groups pointed out that another protester, Mostafa Salehi, was executed in August after his participation in a nationwide uprising at the start of 2018 was characterized as “leading riots.” Several other participants in this and subsequent protests have been sentenced to death as well, and Wednesday’s conference sought to emphasize that these would surely be implemented if the international community eased its pressure in the wake of Afkari’s killing.

Most of the event’s speakers expressed a degree of pessimism about Western governments’ commitment to improving Iran’s human rights record. The moderator, an official from the NCRI’s UK representative office, Hossein Abedini, slammed Tehran’s latest politically motivated execution criticized foreign powers that have seemingly allowed the regime to get away with more of the same.

“The regime is in violation of international human rights laws,” he said. “Yet the international community has failed the people of Iran and allowed the regime to enjoy impunity by refraining from holding regime officials to account.”

The NCRI has long emphasized that this trend can be traced back at least to the summer of 1988, when Iranian authorities assembled “death commissions” in prisons throughout the country, then held extremely brief re-trials of political prisoners in order to determine whether they were still opposed to the theocratic system and thus guilty of “enmity against God.” All those who failed to demonstrate fealty to the mullahs’ regime were targeted for summary executions, which were carried out promptly and often in large groups. By the end of a several-month period, approximately 30,000 pro-democracy activists had been killed, and little condemnation had been voiced by foreign governments despite the fact that Iranian expatriate activists had been trying for the entire time to reach them with information about the emerging massacre.

Participants in the NCRI’s online conference specifically highlighted that incident as an unresolved issue in American and European relations with the Islamic Republic. Alejo Vidal Quadras, a former vice president of the European Parliament, described it as showing “the consequences of silence amidst crimes against humanity.” He went on to note that many of the known perpetrators of the 1988 massacre remain in positions of great power and influence in the Iranian regime, including at the head of the judiciary and the Ministry of Justice. This fact establishes continuity not only between Afkari’s execution and surrounding crackdowns on recent uprisings but also between those crackdowns and Iran’s entire history of human rights abuses.

British MP Steve McCabe thus warned about the potential consequences of failing to keep the pressure on Tehran after Afkari’s execution, just as the world had failed to apply meaningful pressure after the first revelations about the 1988 massacre. “The brutal and secret execution of Navid Afkari gives us a sense of what is happening in Iran,” he said. “There must be worries for dozens of political prisoners who might be wondering if a similar fate is awaiting them.”

The clear implication of Wednesday’s conference was that these worries should motivate more concerted efforts by the international community. But McCabe’s own remarks suggested that Iran’s domestic activist community needs no such motivation. It has remained active in highlighting Iranian human rights violations and other malign actions that support the call for regime change. Noting that some letter-writing campaigns and acts of public defiance had been spearheaded by political prisoners, McCabe said, “If the goal of the regime is to cow the population by executing Navid, it doesn’t seem to be working as they expected.”

This seemed to inspire other participants in the conference to recognize Iran’s current situation as an opportunity for the international community to promote dramatic change in Iran. In fact, some took the explicit position that support for regime change and support for the human rights of ordinary Iranians are inextricably intertwined. “The only sustainable change in Iran is possible with regime change,” said Kimmo Sasi, a former Finnish Member of Parliament who was the last to speak at the NCRI event.

“The way for Iran’s future is Madam Maryam Rajavi’s ten-point plan,” he continued, referencing the statement of principles that would define a transitional government under the leadership of the figure who currently stands at the head of the NCRI coalition. Among the 10-point plan’s provisions are a commitment to free and fair elections and a framework for equal protection under the law for Iranians of every demographic.

Many Iranian dissidents and their political supporters believe that the current regime is fundamentally unwilling or unable to adopt these principles without risking its hold on power. And the Afkari execution was regarded by many of them as the latest and most high-profile piece of evidence for this conclusion. But it still remains to be seen whether Western leaders will agree with that conclusion, or take action to dissuade Tehran from cracking down on dissent while supporting Iran’s activist community in its push to establish a more humane, alternative government.

Navid Afkari Isn’t a Culprit Even Under Iran’s Outdated Constitution