As Sadegh Khalkhali was beginning what would be a long career of executions, he got his hands on Azar, the white horse of Iran’s former Shah. In an act of extreme cruelty, he publicly paraded with the horse, then broke his legs, blinded him, cut off his tongue before shooting him through the head. This total disregard for innocent life would follow him through the rest of his career and cast a shameful shadow over Iran’s new history of turning executions into a public spectacle. .
Sadly, Khalkhali’s cruelty didn’t end with the killing of Azar. In the years that followed, he ordered the death sentences of and executed hundreds of influential and ordinary Iranians, including intellectuals, monarchists, women who were perceived to be immodest, and others seen as threats to the revolution. He was the chief executioner and a “leader” with a generational following that killed thousands of political prisoners in cold blood.
With tens of thousands of executions since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, it is hard to capture the full scale of the lost life. The regime recently issued a death sentence to three young men who participated in the November protests. Amir Hossein Moradi, Mohammad Rajabi, and Saeed Tamjidi were among the thousands of protesters who took to the streets in November 2019 to demonstrate against the rise of gas prices and the increasingly intolerable living conditions in their country. Today they face the death penalty. This sentence was issued after reportedly violent interrogation sessions that likely led to forced confessions.
Human rights activists are mobilizing to halt the execution of the three men and are calling on compassionate citizens around the world, regardless of their political views, to join the call on saving lives.
In a country where citizens are banned from criticizing their leaders or demanding more freedom, execution is an easy way to silence dissenters and to coerce the public into conformity to the very rules and practices that suffocate them. Furthermore, as the regime fails to invest in long-term solutions to social problems such as poverty, drug addiction, gender inequality, and discrimination, execution is a quick solution that eliminates the symptoms without curing the disease. In most cases, these death sentences have been delivered following “kangaroo courts” with no due-process or as a result of forced confessions.
Much of the recorded data on executions comes from eyewitnesses' accounts-- people who witnessed the public executions, the cellmates who heard about the horrors, or reports documented almost proudly by the regime.
In the early days of the revolution, many heard gunshots at dawn, a preferred time for executions. The next day, parents would hide the newspaper from their children to shelter them from the images of the corpses and disrobed bodies of ex-military and governmental officials, such as Iran’s iconic prime minister, Amir Abbas Hoveyda (Hoveida), on the front page of the paper. He was beaten, shot in the neck, and finally executed by a guard after a sham trial.
As the revolution wore on, the system of so-called justice seemed to regress into something akin to the medieval era. Eventually, public hangings and stoning became standard practice for executions in Iran. Prisoners recounted hearing their cellmates’ name suddenly called out in the middle of the night, then watched on as they were forcibly removed from their cells, without the decency of a last goodbye to their loved ones.
Mass executions were also employed, as was the case with the killing of over 20 Sunni prisoners, including Shahram Ahmadi, whose body reportedly bore signs of torture before execution. Drug offenders are routinely put to death, even those who held a prayer service where they repented and begged for forgiveness, hoping to be spared for their crimes.
Female prisoners face additional levels of humiliation and barbaric acts, as they fear the added torture of sexual assault, frequently facing rape or forced marriage before execution, as allegedly was the fate of Elaheh Deknama and Sima Mottaleb. Many of these stories are so painful and wrapped in public shame that grieving parents often feel compelled to suffer silently. There are also stories of the post-execution practice of pulling the bodies down at the last moment to take away their last breaths.
Pictures of public executions in Iran have been widely available and circulated for years as the regime regularly covers such events. Photographs of massive crowds gathering to watch a person die in a public square are scattered across social media. Such images evoke disgust and desensitize children who watch and learn.
Unfortunately, not even minors have escaped the horror of executions. To name a few examples, in 2005, two teenagers, Mahmoud Asgari and Ayaz Marhoni were publicly executed in Mashhad for allegedly engaging in same-sex sexual acts. Additionally, the 17-year-old Alireza Mollasoltani was hanged in public for allegedly killing a well-known “muscleman” in an altercation.
Public squares in Iran have become platforms for such morbid spectacles, showcasing the slow deaths of suspected drug offenders, thieves, and murderers as the government’s most decisive “response” to social ills that they fail to cure or prevent.
The regime regularly reports these events, and pictures of public executions in Iran have been widely available. Such images evoke disgust and have a traumatic effect on children, desensitizing them to future horrors.
In response to mounting international outrage, the Iranian regime has defended its practice of capital punishment. Sometimes it describes these killings as a matter of morality or national security, or simply as a function of its legal traditions. Indeed, unfazed by global criticism, the Iranian judiciary continues to sentence civilians to death and carries out hundreds of executions every year.
In the face of injustice, we are compelled to seek justice even in a country like Iran, where it is rarely attained. We honor the high-profile individuals by remembering their names and legacies, but so many of the martyrs will remain unknown in history, so many of their stories remain untold. Perhaps one day, a critical mass of voices will come together and call for the unconditional end to the death penalty in Iran, let alone around the world. Until the time when the international community can stand together against executions in every form, we seem doomed to witness a steady pace of executions in the Islamic Republic.