Blasphemy executions denounced by rights groups as ‘shocking new low’ for Iran

Amnesty International, others decry hangings of men accused of mocking Islam online, amid sharp spike in regime killings, at least 208 of which have been committed this year

Women walk along a street in Tehran on April 19, 2023, days after authorities shut more than 150 businesses for not respecting the obligation for women to wear headscarves. (ATTA KENARE / AFP)
Women walk along a street in Tehran on April 19, 2023, days after authorities shut more than 150 businesses for not respecting the obligation for women to wear headscarves. (ATTA KENARE / AFP)

AFP — Iran on Monday hanged two men on blasphemy charges over social media content, which Amnesty International said marked a “shocking new low” in a spree of executions.

Sadrollah Fazeli Zare and Youssef Mehrdad, convicted of desecrating the Quran and insulting the Prophet Mohammed, were hanged in the morning in a prison in the central city of Arak, the judiciary’s Mizan Online website said.

The pair were accused of operating social media channels and groups that promoted atheism and insulted Islamic “sanctities,” Mizan said.

It added one of them in March 2021 had purportedly confessed during a court session to publishing the content in question on his social media account.

Iran executes more people yearly than any other nation except China, according to rights groups including Amnesty.

So far in 2023, at least 208 people have been executed, according to the Norway-based group Iran Human Rights (IHR).

The latest hangings came amid growing international concern after IHR and the Paris-based Together Against the Death Penalty organization said last month 2022 had seen the highest number of executions in the Islamic Republic since 2015.

A woman, wearing the chador, a head-to-toe garment, walks on a sidewalk in front of a mural showing the late Iranian revolutionary founder Ayatollah Khomeini, right, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, left, and Basij paramilitary force, at Enqelab-e-Eslami (Islamic Revolution) street, in downtown Tehran, Iran, Jan. 7, 2023. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)

A joint report by the two groups found that at least 582 people had been executed in Iran last year, marking a 75-percent increase from the previous year.

Rights groups accuse the Iranian authorities of using capital punishment as a means to intimidate the population after a wave of anti-regime protests that erupted in September and shook the clerical leadership.

Amnesty said in a statement the execution of Fazeli Zare and Mehrdad represented “a shocking new low for Iran’s authorities and only furthers Iran’s pariah status.”

“They were hanged solely for social media posts in a grotesque assault on the rights to life and freedom of religion.”

File: Iranian female prisoners seen at their cell in the Evin prison in Tehran, Iran in 2006. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)

IHR’s director, Mahmood Amiry-Moghaddam, said the execution of “two people for expressing their opinions” should be a “turning point for countries with freedom of expression values” in their relations with Tehran.

“The international community must make it clear that the use of the death penalty against the expression of opinion will not be tolerated.”

While the Islamic Republic’s law permits executions for blasphemy, hangings of people convicted of such charges have been relatively rare in recent years.

IHR said an Iranian man was executed in 2013 for questioning the Koran’s narrative on the life of the prophet Jonah in the belly of a whale.

A picture obtained from the Iranian Mizan News Agency on December 12, 2022, shows the public execution of Majidreza Rahnavard, in Iran’s Mashhad city. (Mizan News/AFP)

The vast majority of people executed in Iran have been convicted of drug-related or murder charges.

On Friday, Amiry-Moghaddam said that over the 10 previous days, Iran had executed “one person every six hours… while the international community has remained silent”.

Amnesty noted “a steep rise in the use of the death penalty by the Iranian authorities in recent weeks.”

Rights groups have noted the spike coincided with nationwide demonstrations triggered by the September 16 death in custody of Mahsa Amini, who had been arrested for allegedly violating strict dress rules for women.

Four men have been executed in connection with the protests, drawing international rebuke.

On Saturday, Iran executed Swedish-Iranian dissident Habib Chaab for “terrorism,” prompting sharp criticism from Sweden and the European Union.

Amnesty said the execution came after a grossly unfair trial marred by torture and forced confessions.

Activist Daniela Sepehri, center, speaks in front of a cage, representing a prison cell, during a rally in support of Jamshid Sharmahd, an Iranian-German national given a death sentence in Iran on April 27, 2023 outside a building of the German parliament in Berlin. (Odd ANDERSEN / AFP)

Meanwhile, German-Iranian Jamshid Sharmahd, 68, is condemned to death by Iran, which does not recognize dual nationality, in connection with a deadly mosque bombing in 2008.

His family strongly rejects the charges and says Sharmahd was abducted by Iranian security forces to face trial in Tehran while traveling in the Gulf in 2020.

“Without urgent international action, the Iranian authorities will continue to deploy the death penalty to torment and terrorize the entire population, crush protests and other forms of dissent,” said Amnesty.

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