Protests across Iran, led largely by women, have been demanding improvements to human rights and civil liberties in the country for weeks. The demonstrations began after a 22-year-old woman, Mahsa Amini, died in police custody after being arrested on accusations of improperly wearing hijab, a head covering that Iranian law requires women to wear while in public.
In the weeks since, human rights groups estimate more than 15,000 protesters have been detained by the Iranian government.
On Monday, several posts on social media went viral – including from celebrities like Peter Frampton, Sophie Turner and Viola Davis – claiming all 15,000 of those protesters had been sentenced to death, and warning of an impending mass execution.
Were 15,000 Iranian protesters sentenced to death?
No, 15,000 protesters were not sentenced to death. So far only one protester has received such a sentence. However, human rights groups warn that future sentences could be handed down without warning or due process.
WHAT WE FOUND
Though an estimated 15,000 protesters have been detained in Iran, the posts shared on social media claiming that they have all been sentenced to death are inaccurate.
Reporting indicates only one person had actually received a death sentence in connection with the protests, at the time the viral posts were sent. As many as four others were reported in the days afterwards. Experts warn more could come eventually, though not all at once
The viral posts, like those by Davis, cite a Newsweek article with a headline that previously read “Iran Protesters Refuse to Back Down as 15,000 Face Execution.”
The 15,000 number comes from estimates by the United Nations and the Human Rights Activists News Agency of how many total people have been detained in Iran in connection with the protests.
The Newsweek article previously claimed “the country's parliament overwhelmingly voted in favor of the death penalty for protesters.” On Tuesday, Nov. 15, Newsweek retracted its previous reporting and added a correction to its article.
This claim is based on a letter, reported by Iranian state media to have been signed by 227 Iranian lawmakers, that “asked [Iranian] judicial officials to consider severe punishments for all those involved” in what the letter says are “riots.”
According to state media, the letter read in part, “We, the representatives of this nation, ask all state officials, including the Judiciary, to treat those, who waged war [against the Islamic establishment] and attacked people’s life and property like the Daesh [terrorists], in a way that would serve as a good lesson in the shortest possible time.”
However, there are two issues with the characterization of this letter in the article and subsequent posts. For one, there is no indication that the letter explicitly calls for the death penalty.
The Newsweek article itself – replicating part of a CNN article published two days earlier – said “lawmakers added that such a punishment… the methods of which were not specified… ‘would show no leniency to anybody.’”
Secondly, parliament in Iran does not issue sentences. The letter was a broad request to the Iranian courts to treat protesters harshly; it was not itself any sort of binding action.
According to the Constitute Project, which tracks global constitutions, the judiciary is laid out as a separate branch of government in the Iranian Constitution.
Article 57 reads, “The powers of government in the Islamic Republic are vested in the legislature, the judiciary, and the executive powers, functioning under the supervision of the absolute wilayat al-'amr and the Leadership of the Ummah, in accordance with the forthcoming articles of this Constitution. These powers are independent of each other.”
Chapter XI further lays out the role of the judiciary as an “independent power.”
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Despite parliament’s request not being an actual sentence, experts with the United Nations Human Rights Council called the letter’s attempt to influence the courts a “blatant violation of the separation of powers.”
The same group of experts, in an open letter, said that even without sentences yet, the sheer number of people being charged with crimes that could eventually carry the death penalty is concerning.
“Eight people were charged on 29 October by the Islamic Revolution Court… with crimes carrying the death penalty, namely ‘waging war against God,’” the letter read. “Two days later, the Tehran prosecutor announced that some 1,000 indictments had been issued in connection with recent ‘riots’ in Tehran province alone and that trials were scheduled in the Islamic Revolutionary Court for cases against a number of individuals.”
“We urge Iranian authorities to stop using the death penalty as a tool to squash protests and reiterate our call to immediately release all protesters who have been arbitrarily deprived of their liberty for the sole reason of exercising their legitimate rights to freedom of opinion and expression, association and peaceful assembly and for their actions to promote and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms through peaceful means,” the experts said.
Groups like Iran Human Rights similarly fear a trend of quick, harsh punishments being handed out without due process.
“Evidence indicates that Islamic Republic authorities may be planning to carry out hasty executions. At least 20 protesters are currently facing charges punishable by death per official reports,” the group wrote in an article published to its website.
Iran Human Rights estimates there have already been more than 470 total executions in Iran in 2022. Amnesty International estimated 314 in 2021, and 246 in 2020, evidence of a rapid upwards trend in capital punishment being used in the country.
UPDATE: This story has been updated to reference reports of additional individual death sentences handed down to protesters since the time of original publication.
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