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Iran's protest supporters face arrests, working bans

Shabnam von Hein
January 8, 2023

Tehran has been targeting those who support the protesters in Iran by arresting journalists and dismissing lecturers. Even experts who point out violations are being locked away.

A female member of the Iranian police special force
Female members of the Iranian police special force follow a strict dress codeImage: Nikoubazl Irangene/imago images

"We don't know which of us will be arrested next. We're very worried," Iranian journalists have revealed in background talks. They avoid interviews with foreign media, but try to keep the world informed of the situation in Iran through social media.

The journalist Milad Alavi was arrested on January 1. Why? "I don't know either," his brother posted on Twitter. Security officials had searched Alavi's apartment on December 13 and confiscated his phone and laptop.

Alavi had been reporting on the victims of the most recent protests and their families. The countrywide protests erupted in the autumn after the death of Jina Mahsa Amini in police custody. Human rights experts estimate that at least 470 demonstrators have been killed since last September, and over 18,000 arrested.

Now the state is dealing with those who have spoken out about those who have been affected by the crackdown.

Dozens of journalists, academics behind bars

According to the Oslo-based NGO Iran Human Rights, at least 62 journalists are currently behind bars. Milad Alavi, who works for Tehran's daily paper Shargh, is now in the same prison as the well-known sociologist Saeed Madani. In late December, his paper had reported that Madani had received multiple visits from high-ranking officials of an unnamed ministry in prison.

"They were asking him for advice on how to end the uprising across the country," his lawyer, Mahmoud Behzadirad, later said in an interview with Shargh. Saeed Madani is said to have suggested ending the violence and taking protesters' rights into consideration.

Madani has been sentenced to nine years in jail, convicted on grounds of contributing to "building and leading anti-establishment groups" and spreading "propaganda against the Islamic Republic of Iran" through his books and articles.

The distribution of Madani's books was prohibited last summer, after the University of Tehran professor was arrested in May 2022. Back then, he had warned about inflation and scarce food supplies, stating that "these protests must be taken seriously, because they are directed against the entire political system, and they are recurrent."

Madani has been arrested several times in the past 13 years. In his books, he makes a case for solidarity within civil society and for the courage to stand up for one's convictions. And several of his university colleagues are being punished for following that idea.

Farshid Norouzi, professor for English literature at the University of Mazandaran, for example, told Instagram on January 2 that his contract had been canceled and that he would not be receiving any wages for the current semester. The reason: He had refused to pass on the names of students who had boycotted lectures to the security authorities.

Activists organize much-needed support from abroad

"Of course, a number of lawyers known to fight for human rights were arbitrarily arrested," said Saeid Dehghan, a human rights lawyer. Dehghan has been living in Canada in recent months and is trying to build a network of experts who can offer council to those in Iran. There are hardly any independent lawyers left in Iran who can fight for their clients without having to fear prosecution or becoming a political prisoner themselves.

"We document the systematic rights violations, as well as the names of the judges handing down unjust sentences. We are in touch with the independent fact-finding mission of the UN Human Rights Council investigating abuses against citizens," Dehghan told DW.

Amnesty: At least 26 people in Iran at risk of execution

One of the goals is to halt the enforcement of executions in Iran. On January 3, the US-based rights monitor HRANA reported that over half of the executions in the country were currently being conducted covertly. In 2022, only 35% of all executions had been officially announced. HRANA estimated that at least 565 people were executed in Iran last year, including two who were connected to the countrywide protests.

26 prisoners on death row

Twenty-six further prisoners are currently awaiting execution. They were sentenced to death in show trials meant to intimidate the population and put an end to the protests. At least 11 people have been sentenced to death, and another 15 have been accused of crimes that are punishable by death in Iran — including waging "war against God."

Writer and illustrator Mehdi Bahman is among them. He was sentenced to death by a court in Tehran after giving an interview with Israeli media.

Bahman, who has spent much of his life advocating for interfaith dialogue and peace, had endorsed normalizing ties between Israel and Iran. Since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, Iran's rulers have been hostile toward Israel. 

Fears grow over two Iranians on death row: Left Party MP Clara Bünger speaks to DW

Mehdi Bahman was arrested in October and charged with espionage. In December, without legal council, he was sentenced to death. Iran's rulers have accused foreign powers of instigating the protests throughout the country.

This article was originally published in German.

Correction, January 8, 2023: A previous version of this article misspelled the name of the University of Mazandaran. DW apologizes for the error.