Iran frees several dozen prominent prisoners to appease protest movement

Limited amnesty for at least 50 government opponents comes as mass rallies dwindle; some activists, journalists and politicians remain imprisoned

Iranians protest the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini after she was detained by the morality police, in Tehran, October 1, 2022. (AP Photo/Middle East Images, File)
Iranians protest the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini after she was detained by the morality police, in Tehran, October 1, 2022. (AP Photo/Middle East Images, File)

AFP — Iran, rocked by months of protests sparked by the death of Mahsa Amini, has released several dozen well-known prisoners in an apparent attempt to appease critics of the government.

The limited amnesty comes as the frequency and size of rallies has eased off in the winter months since their peak after the mid-September death in custody of Amini, a 22-year-old Iranian Kurdish woman.

She died after her arrest for allegedly flouting dress rules that demand women wear hijab headscarves and modest clothing, setting off months of civil unrest. Iran has labeled the protests as foreign-instigated “riots.”

Hundreds were killed during the demonstrations, among them security forces.

Thousands were arrested, among them famous athletes, singers and actors, for their alleged involvement, and four convicts were hanged after trials that rights groups dismissed as a sham.

Many of those detained are believed to still be behind bars, and those out on bail still face the threat of ongoing legal cases against them.

But as the street tensions have calmed somewhat, Iran has released a group of high-profile detainees in recent weeks, a step seen as an attempt to de-escalate after months of turmoil.

The reformist newspaper Etemad ran pictures of 50 newly liberated figures on its front page, the best indication of the scale of releases in the absence of an official list.

Among them were filmmaker Mohammad Rasoulof, French-Iranian researcher Fariba Adelkhah, activists Farhad Meysami, Saba Kordafshari and Mohammad Habibi, and photographer Noushin Jafari.

Iranian director Mohammad Rasoulof during a photocall for the film ‘Lerd’ at the 70th Cannes Film Festival, May 19, 2017. (AFP Photo/Valery Hache)

Renowned director Jafar Panahi had also been released days earlier.

“This amnesty is unprecedented in scope, as far as I remember,” said journalist Maziar Khosravi, who has been jailed several times since 2009 and was briefly detained in the latest protests.

Iran’s prisons still hold politicians, activists and journalists who have criticized the authorities, and uncertainty remains over their fate and what steps the authorities may take in the future.

The two journalists who were among the first to draw public attention to Amini’s death, Elaheh Mohammadi and Niloufar Hamedi, remain behind bars, along with about a dozen of their colleagues detained amid the protests.

Other prominent figures still in jail include politicians Faezeh Hashemi and Mostafa Tajzadeh, sociologist Saeed Madani, activists Mehdi Mahmoudian and Fatemeh Sepehri, and lawyers Amirsalar Davoudi and Mostafa Nili.

Iranian Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei approved the partial amnesty in early February, on a proposal by judiciary chief Gholamhossein Mohseni Ejei ahead of the 44th anniversary of the Islamic republic.

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi used that occasion last Saturday to announce a plan to strengthen national “unity,” launched with Khamenei’s approval.

A woman with her forehead painted with the Iranian flag’s colors takes part in the annual rally commemorating Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, in Tehran, Iran, February 11, 2023. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)

“Students and cultural, sports and media personalities who have been subject to restrictions due to illegal actions will be pardoned,” said Raisi, an ultraconservative former judiciary chief.

Former Iranian president Hassan Rouhani, a moderate, voiced hope the prisoner releases will “reinforce national cohesion” and serve as “the starting point for repairing divisions” among Iranians.

The ultraconservative Javan newspaper saw the government’s move as a sign that “the sedition has come to an end.”

In recent weeks, the government has also eased some internet restrictions, although access to Instagram and WhatsApp, the most popular social media and communication platforms in Iran, remains blocked.

Khosravi predicted the new measures would help “calm the atmosphere in the short term.” But he added that, as spring weather arrives, “we will have to see how the authorities will react to women who will be less covered when temperatures rise.”

Political scientist Ahmad Zeidabadi, who has also been repeatedly jailed, judged that “if the amnesty does not include all political prisoners and stops at this stage, it will not help improve the situation” in the longer term.

Iran has endured years of tough sanctions and Tehran remains sharply at odds with major western powers over its contested nuclear program and a range of other issues.

“There are many factors of discontent,” said Zeidabadi, pointing to multiple factors — “the economic difficulties of the population, the tensions in international relations, and the pressures concerning the wearing of the hijab.”

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