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Iran's plan to execute 3 protesters sparks huge backlash

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Iranians Amirhossein Moradi, 26, Saeed Tamjidi, 28, and Mohamad Rajabi, 26, are seen in file photos provided by Amnesty International. All three men were sentenced to death in February 2020 for taking part in anti-government protests in Iran in November the previous year. Amnesty International

Tehran — Several high-profile executions and a number of death sentences handed down by Iran's judiciary system — including against three anti-government protesters — have caught the world's attention and sent a fresh wave a fear, and defiance, through Iranian society. State executions aren't new in Iran, and there are a wide range of charges that can carry the death penalty, but the uptick in recent weeks appears to have a clear goal.

Judiciary spokesman Golamhosein Esmaeili announced on Tuesday the execution of Reza Asgari, a former Defense Ministry employee who was accused of selling information to the CIA about Iran's missile program.

Last month, Iran said another alleged spy, Jalal Hajizavar, had been hanged. Hajizavar was also a former employee of Iran's Defense Ministry, and officials said he admitted in court to being paid to spy for the CIA.

It's not just purported spies, however. Morteza Jamali, a 55-year-old father of two, was executed last week after being found guilty of drinking alcohol more than three times, Amnesty International said, citing the man's lawyer. Local justice officials defended the sentence and warned that the government would not hesitate to execute anyone deemed a threat to law and order.

"The Iranian authorities have once again laid bare the sheer cruelty and inhumanity of their judicial system by executing a man simply for drinking alcohol," said Amnesty's Deputy Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa, Diana Eltahawy, in a statement released last week.

A number of others are awaiting the same fate.

Mahmoud Mousavi Majda, a former member of the Iranian military's elite Quds Force unit, was found guilty of spying for the CIA and Israel's Mossad and sentenced to death last month.

#Do_not_execute

The cases that have galvanized public opinion the most, however, are those of three young men accused of taking part in anti-government protests last November. Amirhossein Moradi, Saeed Tamjidi and Mohamad Rajabi, all in their 20s, were condemned after participating in the protests sparked by a hike in gas prices.

The men were sentenced to death in February after confessing to "vandalism and arson with the intent to confront and engage in war with the Islamic Republic of Iran." All three men have said they were forced to make false confessions under harsh treatment in prison. 

The sentences have sparked a huge outcry online, with almost 10 million tweets and retweets using the Persian language "#do_not_execute" hashtag since Tuesday, when the Supreme Court upheld their death sentences.

Amnesty, which has launched an online petition calling for Iran to halt the executions, said the men's "trial was grossly unfair. They were denied access to lawyers during the investigation phase and say they were tortured."   

Under pressure, the judiciary reportedly agreed to hear any appeals made by the three men, and one of their lawyers said he'd been allowed — for the first time — to view case materials. As of Friday, however, judiciary officials and state media had given no indication that the death sentences were being reconsidered.

Former Iranian prisoners lucky enough to be released and leave the country have said forced confessions are common in Iran. Survivors have described physical and mental torture in Iranian prisons, and said their family members were also put under pressure to get them to make recorded confessions that are often aired on state TV.

The motivation

Many Iranian political analysts believe, though they're reluctant to speak publicly, that the recent death sentences have been handed down as part of an effort to discourage new protests, which the government can ill afford right now.

Many who joined the rallies in November were reluctant to discuss their motivations with CBS News or say whether they'd join any new demonstrations, citing the protesters currently facing execution.

Amir, a 35-year-old taxi driver who lives in a southern suburb of Tehran, agreed to speak if he wasn't fully identified. He said he went to the rallies in the autumn to show his disapproval of the fuel price hike and the wider economic hardship Iranians are suffering.

He stopped taking part, however, after three days, saying he feared for his life given the brutality of the security forces' response to the protests. He said he saw them shooting directly at protesters, and he had to think about his family.

The Iranian government has been put under tremendous pressure over the last year, both from the protests and the coronavirus epidemic inside the country, and the Trump administration's "maximum pressure" policy of crippling Tehran with economic sanctions.

Sporadic, small-scale anti-government demonstrations continue to pop up. Police officials told a local news outlet that they'd quashed a protest in the southern city of Behbahan on Thursday night. 

Unconfirmed reports said tear gas was used, and online monitoring group NetBlocks.org said internet access had been disrupted in the region after videos showing the protests, like the one above, surfaced on social media. 

A series of recent, mysterious explosions and fires near sensitive industrial, military and nuclear facilities has put even more attention on the Islamic Republic, so the government has little capacity to try and quell any significant new round of unrest right now.

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