Iran’s authorities have used crude propaganda tactics to dehumanize death penalty victims in the eyes of the public and divert attention away from the deeply flawed trials that led to their death sentences, said Amnesty International in a new report published today.
Broadcasting injustice, boasting of mass killing highlights how the Iranian authorities embarked on a media campaign following the mass execution of 25 Sunni men accused of involvement in an armed group on 2 August 2016, by flooding state-controlled media outlets with numerous videos featuring forced “confessions” in an attempt to justify the executions.
“By parading death row prisoners on national TV, the authorities are blatantly attempting to convince the public of their ‘guilt’, but they cannot mask the disturbing truth that the executed men were convicted of vague and broadly defined offences and sentenced to death after grossly unfair trials,” said Philip Luther, Research and Advocacy Director for the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International.
“Iran’s authorities have a duty to bring to justice individuals who carry out armed attacks killing civilians. However, there is never any excuse for extracting forced ‘confessions’ through torture or other ill-treatment and broadcasting them in chilling videos. This is a serious violation of prisoners’ rights and denies them and their families human dignity.”
The stage-managed “confession” videos have sensationalist headlines such as In the Devil’s hands (Dar dast-e Sheytan) and In the depth of darkness (Dar omgh-e tariki) and melodramatic musical backing tracks. In some of the videos, the scenes have been interposed with film trailer style captions such as “to be continued” or “coming soon” to heighten their dramatic effect.
In messages recorded inside prison and posted online using a clandestine mobile phone many of the men said that they were forced to give “confessions” on camera after suffering months of torture in Ministry of Intelligence detention centres where they were held in prolonged solitary confinement. They described being kicked, punched, beaten with electric batons, flogged, deprived of sleep and denied access to food and medication.
“I felt I had no options left… I could not bear any more abuse and torture… They [intelligence officials] took me before a camera and told me that my case would be closed and they would release me if I stated what they told me to,” said Mokhtar Rahimi, one of those later executed, adding that the statements he made were then used to convict him.
Another man, Kaveh Sharifi, said he was told to memorize six pages of written text prepared by the Ministry of Intelligence:
“I practised for almost two hours a day until I had the information completely memorized… They even told me how I should move my hands and keep a happy face so that no one would suspect I was held in solitary confinement or ill-treated.”
As well as releasing propaganda videos, the Iranian authorities also issued a series of inflammatory statements similarly describing the executed men as heinous criminals deserving the punishment they received. As with the video “confessions”, the statements provide a skewed description of events and undermine the dignity and reputations of the men featured. They attribute to the men collectively a wide range of criminal activities and do not clarify what involvement each of them had in the reported incidents.
Those featured in the “confession” videos include Kaveh Sharifi, Kaveh Veysee, Shahram Ahmadi and Edris Nemati, who were among the 25 men executed on 2 August 2016. Loghman Amini, Bashir Shahnazari, Saman Mohammadi and Shouresh Alimoradi, four Sunni men who have been held in a Ministry of Intelligence detention centre in Sanandaj, Kurdistan Province since their arrests, are also featured prominently.
In the videos the men repeatedly denigrate themselves as “terrorists” who deserve their punishment. They “confess” to being involved with a group called Towhid va Jahad, which they say carried out armed attacks and plotted assassinations of “disbelievers” (kuffar). In some of the videos, they compare themselves to the armed group calling itself Islamic State (IS) and warn that “we would have committed atrocities worse than IS if we had not been stopped”. These videos are interjected with clips showing IS atrocities carried out in Syria and Iraq, in an apparent effort to exploit Iranian people’s fears about security threats elsewhere in the region to justify the men’s executions.
Several inconsistencies also arise within the videos indicating that the “confessions” are likely to have been scripted. In some cases, the men are linked to crimes that occurred months after they had been arrested or the nature of their involvement in the crimes attributed to them changes massively from one video to another.
The “confession” videos illustrate how far Iran’s intelligence and security forces have violated the men’s right to the presumption of innocence as well as the right not to be forced into incriminating themselves.
The men were convicted of the vaguely worded crime of “enmity against God” through “membership of a Sunni Salafist group” and carrying out armed attacks and assassinations. However, many of the men had repeatedly denied their involvement in such activities during their years on death row.
Amnesty International is not able to confirm either of these opposing narratives, not least due to the secrecy surrounding the trials. The organization’s research, however, indicates the men’s trials were blatantly unfair. They were all denied access to a lawyer at the investigation stage, and said they were subjected to torture in order to give “confessions” that were then used to convict them.
As a state party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Iran is legally obliged to prohibit, prevent and punish torture, refrain from admitting “confessions” obtained by torture as evidence and ensure a fair trial for all those accused of a crime. Given the irreversible nature of the death penalty, it is even more crucial that in such cases international fair trial safeguards are strictly observed.
The videos were produced and broadcast by different state-associated media outlets, including Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB), Press TV and an organization called Habilian Association. Any state-controlled bodies involved in the production of the “confession” videos share responsibility for the human rights violations committed against the men featured in their productions and their families.
Three months after the mass execution, the Iranian authorities have failed to provide information about the precise criminal activities that each of the executed men had been charged with and convicted of. This violates Iran’s obligations under international human rights law to issue public judgements in all criminal cases, making clear the evidence and legal reasoning relied upon for the conviction.
“The Iranian authorities must immediately stop producing and broadcasting ‘confessions’ extracted through torture and other ill-treatment. They must also lift the veil of secrecy around trial proceedings and ensure that courts issue well-reasoned judgements, which are made available to the public,” said Philip Luther.
Amnesty International calls on the Iranian authorities to immediately establish an official moratorium on executions with a view to abolishing the death penalty.
The 25 men executed on 2 August 2016 were part of a larger group of Sunni men, most of whom were arrested between 2009 and 2011 when a number of armed confrontations and assassinations took place in Iran’s Kurdistan Province. While the authorities have acknowledged that 20 executions took place that day, Amnesty International has received reliable information about five additional executions, bringing the total to 25.
Scores of the men, including Barzan Nasrollahzadeh, who was arrested when under 18 years of age, remain on death row.
Amnesty International opposes the death penalty in all cases without exception regardless of the nature or circumstances of the crime; guilt, innocence or other characteristics of the individual; or the method used by the state to carry out the execution. The organization campaigns for total abolition of the death penalty.