Iran: With death sentences, government seeks to deter opposition


It didn't take much for Iranian courts to sentence 10 people to death over the country's post-election turmoil. For one prisoner, the main evidence was that he allegedly sent videos of protests abroad. The government accuses the 10 of leading unrest after the disputed presidential election, but none of them seem to have played any significant role in the protest movement. What most of the prisoners have in common is tenuous past links to a much-disliked exile movement, the Mujahedeen-e Khalq Organization.

The death sentences are widely seen as an attempt to cow the opposition ahead of the anniversary of the disputed June 12 election that sparked nationwide protests. They also reflect the regime's campaign to tarnish the opposition by depicting it as a tool of the MKO, an armed group that was largely wiped out in Iran in the late 1980s and remains widely reviled among Iranians.

"The Intelligence Ministry and the Revolutionary Guards are certainly very eager to portray the protest movement as a confrontation between the regime and the MKO," said Hadi Ghaemi, director of the New York-based International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran. "But there is no evidence of the MKO having notable support among the protesters or ... any role in demonstrations."

The death sentences are succeeding in spreading a chill among the opposition. Some student leaders say they're hesitant to call supporters to risk their lives by participating in demonstrations.

On May 9, five Kurds were hanged on charges of belonging to a Kurdish activist group. While separate from the postelection crackdown, many saw their executions as a step by the government to show its seriousness.

The 10 on death row in connection with political unrest were all convicted on the vaguely-worded charge of "moharebeh," which literally means "waging war" against God, in what Ghaemi and other rights activists say were cursory trials.

Notably, the government has not sought death penalties against known political opposition figures, though many have been sentenced to prison terms. Instead, it has targeted unknowns. Some of the 10 prisoners were among the thousands who marched in street protests, but none appear to be involved in the organization of the Green Movement, the term for reform politicians, rights activists, journalists and students who have led demonstrations since the election.

Among them are 66-year-old Mohsen Daneshpour-Moghaddam, his 55-year-old wife Motahareh Bahrami and their 40-year-old son Ahmad. They were arrested in a raid on their Tehran home following major demonstrations in December. Two family friends visiting them at the time were also jailed and sentenced to death.

The five were accused of "fomenting" the December protests.

But the main evidence brought against them in their trial was the fact that Daneshpour-Moghaddam was jailed for a year in the 1980s for supporting the MKO, and that he and his wife went in April 2009 to visit another son, Mahmoud, at Camp Ashraf, an MKO camp in Iraq, said their lawyer, Mohammad Sharif.

Daneshpour-Moghaddam's son, Meysam, said his father suffers from heart problems and arthritis in the knees and the back. He said he was stunned watching the trial on television, when the court passed its verdict and sentences, labeling his mother and father the "corrupt on earth."

"She's a religious woman," Meysam, 27, said of his mother in a telephone interview with AP from Tehran. "I don't know why they call her this. She's a simple woman, kind, compassionate."

Several others have been convicted largely because of past MKO ties.

Jaafar Kazemi spent 10 years in prison in the 1990s for supporting the group as a 16-year-old, but he severed ties with the group after that, his lawyer Nasim Ghanavi told AP. In early 2009, he and his family traveled to Camp Ashraf in Iraq, where his 16-year-old son joined the group, refusing his father's demands that he quit and return home.

Kazemi was arrested after the December protests and sentenced to death. Ghanavi only saw her client once, the day of his trial, and has been allowed to talk to him by phone occasionally since.

On Saturday, Tehran's prosecutor-general, Abbas Jaafari Dowlatabadi, announced that appeals by the 47-year-old Kazemi and two others on death row, Mohammed Ali Hajaghai and Mohammed Ali Saremi - had been turned down, meaning their executions could be imminent. He called the three "sympathizers" of the Mujahedeen.

Another defendant - Abdolreza Qanbari, a teacher - was sentenced to death in January after being accused of sending emails and speaking by phone with MKO's TV station abroad, as well as for participating in the December protests. His sentence is being appealed.

Another, Mohammad Reza Arefi, was arrested two months before the presidential election for alleged membership in Anjoman Padeshahi, an exiled monarchist group that the regime has also blamed for fomenting unrest. Two other alleged members were executed in January.

An 11th person on death row, Mohammad Amin Valian, was sentenced to death based on a video showing him throwing stones at police. But the prosecutor announced Saturday that his sentenced was commuted on appeal to 3 1/2 years in prison.

The Green Movement emerged after the opposition accused President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of winning the election by fraud. But by linking it to the MKO, the regime can depict it as a violent rebellion. In the years after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the Mujahedeen carried out a number of bombings and other attacks in a campaign to topple the clerical regime.

Its presence in Iran was all but wiped out by a bloody purge in the late 1980s in which thousands - the MKO claims as many as 30,000 - were killed. The group also lost much of its credibility with Iranians when its forces fought alongside Iraq during its 1980-88 war with Iran and set up bases in Iraq.

The MKO appears to be using the crackdown to portray itself as enjoying a solid power base inside Iran.

"We have played a serious role in the uprising of the past year in Iran," Paris-based Mujahedeen spokesman Shahin Gobadi in Paris told AP. Otherwise, "the regime wouldn't be claiming to have arrested so many ... That's the proof."

However, he could not confirm whether any of the people on death row specifically had worked with the organization.

The factions of the Green Movement staunchly deny any connection with the MKO. In one recent statement, members of the Committee of Human Rights Reporters - many of whose founders and members have been jailed - expressed their "revulsion" toward the Mujahedeen and "shock" that the government was "connecting the children of this nation to an organization that they hate."

Mahboubeh Abbasgholizadeh, a women's rights activist who marched in postelection demonstrations, was detained for a few days late last year. She said her interrogators accused her of working for the MKO and claimed they had proof other activists did the same.

"They usually choose victims - scapegoats ... They link them to groups that have no social standing, such as the MKO, so they can hold them in cages and start executing them one by one when the situation arises," Abbasgholizadeh said, speaking by telephone from outside Iran.

Abbasgholizadeh, the women's activist, says the regime's mindset is "frozen in the 1980s" when the Mujahedeen were seen as a top threat, and has yet to understand the generational changes that have fueled domestic discontent with Iran's clerical rule.

The Intelligence Ministry still runs an "Office of the Monafeqin," which focuses on the MKO, she pointed out. "Monafeqin" is an Arabic word from the Quran meaning "hypocrites" that the regime uses to refer to the MKO.

During her detention, her interrogators accused her of producing a propaganda film for the MKO because of a video interview she conducted with a fellow activist, Abbasgholizadeh said.

They also claimed that several of her fellow activists had confessed to MKO ties, but Abbasgholizadeh said they had little evidence. They showed her one written confession, which declared, "I have no ties to the Monafeqin, I consider them terrorists. I declare my revulsion at them" - but her interrogators said it proved the activist had previously been a member, she said.

Other evidence they produced, she said, was the name of a blogger they claimed was linked to the organization. Abbasgholizadeh said that she has worked with the blogger, a 21-year-old reformist student who lives outside Iran, and that she is unconnected to the group.

Abbasgholizadeh said she told her interrogators that "by arresting people and accusing them of ties to MKO, in reality you're resurrecting a dead organization that was destroyed 21 years ago. You're giving it legitimacy and power."



SUNDAY, MAY 23, 2010