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Iran protesters say unrest 'to get worse' after execution

Shabnam von Hein
December 8, 2022

Iran has executed a prisoner convicted for a crime allegedly committed during the ongoing nationwide protests. Students vow to continue demonstrations and demand change.

A person checks a mobile phone on December 8, 2022, displaying a tweet about the hanging by Iranian authorities of Mohsen Shekari
Mohsen Shekari, 23, was convicted and sentenced to death for blocking a street and wounding a member of the Basij forceImage: AFP/Getty Images

Iranian authorities carried out the first known execution on Thursday over the ongoing anti-government unrest that has shaken the Islamic regime over the past few months.   

Mohsen Shekari, 23, had been convicted and sentenced to death for blocking a street and wounding a member of the Basij force, a paramilitary branch of the nation's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, during the early phase of the demonstrations in mid-September.

Since the start of the anti-government rallies, plainclothes Basij personnel mingled with demonstrators at protest sites to try to calm them.

The judiciary said Shekari had also been convicted of "moharebeh" — or waging "war against God," a charge that carries the death penalty under Iran's Shariah or Islamic law.

The accusation of "war against God" is considered one of the most serious in Iran. But the crime is not clearly defined and no one knows what it exactly means, offering room for interpretation.

The judiciary is now applying the term in its broadest sense to intimidate the protesters.

Rights groups have slammed the legal process, describing it as a show trial.

Authorities didn't release much information about the allegations against Shekari until the sentence was carried out, and the public knew little about the young man. 

He was one of several thousand protesters arrested in the last three months.

Strike is the biggest in Iran in four decades: Negin Shiraghaie, Iranian activist

Regime struggles to put an end to protests

Iran has seen mass anti-regime protests since the death of a young Kurdish woman, the 22-year-old Jina Mahsa Amini, in the custody of "morality police," who had arrested her for allegedly not wearing the hijab, or Islamic head scarf, appropriately.

According to human rights organizations, about 18,000 protesters have been arrested so far. At least 11 of them have been convicted of "war against God."

"It's going to get worse because anger and grief are mobilizing families, friends and acquaintances of the killed protesters," Alireza, a student in the city of Qazvin whose real name has been withheld, told DW.

The city — located about 130 kilometers from the capital Tehran — has about half a million residents. 

"Plainclothes security forces are carrying out checks everywhere in the city, including at the university," the 26-year-old said.

"I don't know how long they will go to such lengths to monitor us. But the wave of protests is returning. Right now we are on strike at the university and not attending classes. A lot of people are doing that. That's why many classes have been canceled."

To put an end to the protests, at least at universities, Iranian authorities claim they are seeking a "dialogue."

Several universities, for instance, organized events for Iran's Student Day on December 7 and invited government officials to answer students' questions.

At Tehran University, President Ebrahim Raisi gave a speech in person, after which some students were allowed to ask him questions.

"These events are mainly attended by well-behaved students who are loyal to the system," said Fatemeh, a 25-year-old student at Al-Zahra University in Tehran, whose real name has been withheld.

Al-Zahra is the only university in Iran that exclusively admits female students and has strict admission rules.

"Since the death of Jina Mahsa Amini, there have been protests in our university as well. I am really surprised by the courage of my fellow female students. Before, it was Tehran University that was always at the forefront of political actions. This time, everyone is protesting."

Is Iran's morality police about to be disbanded?

Significance of Student Day rallies

Tehran University is considered the most prestigious educational institution in the country.

Nearly 70 years ago, on December 7, 1953, three students at the university were shot dead by soldiers of the then-ruling Shah's army.

The reason for the unrest was a coup that toppled the administration of Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh, the only democratically elected government in Iran's recent history. The coup was aided by the US Central Intelligence Agency and the UK's MI6 spy agency.

After the coup, the Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi returned as ruler and rejected democratic reforms. The three murdered students became a symbol of resistance.

After the 1979 revolution and the fall of the Shah, December 7 was declared Student Day. Since then, commemorative events and rallies have been held annually on this day.

Over the past 20 years, these rallies have repeatedly provided an occasion for protest actions against the current regime.

"We will continue to fight for democracy and freedom," students at seven major universities in Tehran announced in a joint statement on Student Day.

Have the Iran protests had an impact?

Students confront offiicals

Videos of rallies at various universities have been posted to the internet, as well as videos from a day earlier of the events at Sharif University.

There, the mayor of Tehran, Alireza Zakani, had met with students and was confronted with many critical questions.

A female student even went on stage without a headscarf and said: "At least the Shah had so much dignity that he left when he saw the mass protests against him in the country."

In the end, Zakani was escorted out by students chanting slogans like, "Death to the dictator."

Students who participate in such protests face harsh punishments.

The case of Saba Rayani offers an indication of how risky it is for those who protest.

She was sentenced to six months in prison and 30 lashes for merely taking part in a peaceful demonstration at the university. She was informed of the sentence on Student Day.

This article was originally written in German.