Iranian protesters gather around a fire during a demonstration against an increase in gasoline prices in the capital Tehran, on November 16, 2019. (AFP)

By Shahed Alavi

August 3, 2020

Five people who took part in protests more than two years ago have been arrested in Isfahan province and could face execution.

The five people allegedly joined protests in Khomeini Shahr in Isfahan province in late 2017 and early 2018, part of Iran’s largest anti-government protests since the disputed 2009 presidential election.

So why are they being targeted more than two years after the protests were crushed? And why they have been sentenced to death?

Lawyers for and the families of the five people have not divulged any information about them. The Revolutionary Guards’ Intelligence Organization forced the five to call their families to tell them not to talk.

However, IranWire has received a copy of a detailed ruling by the Iranian Supreme Court that sheds some light on the case against them. The 29-page Supreme Court indictment outlines the opaque judicial process applied to the case, reveals that the trial against the five was conducted behind closed doors, shows that the defendants were denied the right to appoint their own lawyers, and uses forced confessions under torture as evidence. In addition, the document contains information that discredits both the charges and the sentences against the accused.

Branch 19 of the Supreme Court ruling dated May 13, 2020

No news about the trial of people arrested during the 2017-18 protests in Khomeini Shahr was published until June 26, 2020, when Mohammad Reza Habibi, head of Isfahan province’s Justice Department, reported that final verdicts against eight of the protesters had been issued. They faced the charge of “spreading corruption on the earth“, which can be punishable by death.

On July 27, Isfahan Justice Department’s public relations office denied that the death sentences against eight “rioters” had been finalized and announced that, as of that time, no verdicts in their cases had been issued by “high judiciary” authorities. The date on the Supreme Court’s ruling, however, shows that the court had upheld death sentences against the five protesters on May 13, 2020.

A “Scenario” to Clear the Revolutionary Guards is Launched

Prior to this, however, there had been other reports about the 2017-18 protesters.

On January 3, 2018, in an interview about protests in the Juy Abad neighborhood in Khomeini Shahr, Mohammad Javad Abtahi, member of the parliament from the city, said that between “300 and 400 rioters, mostly from surrounding towns, had come to the Juy Abad area and started a riot by inciting the people…the agitators have been identified and the efforts to arrest them continues. Of course, during the unrest, around 40 of them were arrested and some of them were carrying firearms.” He also reported that four people had been killed during the protests.

One of those who died was Asghar Harun-al-Rashidi, a 20-year-old man who was shot in the chest by security forces during the protests in Juy Abad on the night of January 2, 2018 and died on the way to the hospital. The next day the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) reported the death without naming him, claiming that he had been killed by a hunting rifle as a result of a personal vendetta.

On June 22, 2019, Mohammad Reza Habibi, the chief of Isfahan’s Justice Department, reported that investigations were complete and 16 “rogue elements” from Khomeini Shahr and Juy Abad had been identified in connection with the January 2018 unrest. He made no mention of specific charges against the 16 but the death of Asghar Harun-al-Rashidi provides a clue as to why the Revolutionary Guards’ Intelligence Organization had carried out these arrests. Out of the 14 arrested, five were sentenced to death.

On page eight of the indictment, the Supreme Court’s ruling that upholds the verdicts against the 14 defendants mentions that five protesters — Nemat Salehi, Shahab Amanollahi, Armin Sadeghi, Saeed Mohammad-Sharifi and Asghar Harun-al-Rashidi —were killed during January protests in Khomeini Shahr. The ruling also says that, according to the medical examiner, they were killed as a result of the injuries they sustained to arteries in their chests and to their organs as a result of the impact of a high-velocity, penetrating projectile (ie a bullet). The parents of Asghar Harun-al-Rashidi used the death certificate as evidence to file a complaint against the paramilitary Basij, the Revolutionary Guards and the police for killing their son on January 2, 2018.

The complaint was sent to Branch 1 of Khomeini Shahr General and Revolutionary Court but the examining magistrate at the branch decided that the court was not the correct jurisdiction and sent the case to Isfahan Military Court. “The examining magistrate told Asghar’s father that it appeared that the agents who shot at his son and killed him were from the military and, for this reason, the complaint had to be handled by the military court,” a source close to the Harun-al-Rashidi family told IranWire.

According to page nine of the Supreme Court’s ruling, the examining magistrate at Branch 1 of Isfahan Military Court also announced that it lacked jurisdiction and returned the case to Khomeini Shahr General and Revolutionary Court. “It was at this juncture that the scenario was launched to acquit security forces and replace them with other appropriate defendants for the crime of shooting and killing the victims. It was the lot of these folks to be chosen because their record fitted the roles of this scenario,” the source told IranWire.

The unfolding scenario must have been what Khomeini Shahr MP Mohammad Javad Abtahi had meant when he said “the efforts to arrest” the 40 “rioters” continued, or at least that is how the Guards decided to make it look.

“Sabotage Gang” Discovered After 13 Months

According to page four of the ruling by the Supreme Court, on February 13, 2019, 13 months after the end of the 2017-2018 protests, the court received a report about a “sabotage gang” from the Revolutionary Guards Intelligence Organization. Despite the fact that there were surveillance cameras at the scene and the no existence of other evidence, it is not clear why this “organized gang who led the unrest” was identified 13 months later and only after the family of Asghar Harun-al-Rashidi’s complaint against the Basiji forces and the Revolutionary Guards was filed in a different court.

The ruling attempts to try to solve this problem in an insufficient manner. According to page four of the Supreme Court’s ruling, “after the report on the death of Asghar Harun-al-Rashidi was published, the defendants were questioned and each one described what had happened. These accounts were reported by the Revolutionary Guards’ Intelligence Organization in Fars province and Branch 1 of Khomeini Shahr Investigative Court was given the task of investigating the case. It acquired the information about [defendent] Mehdi Salehi’s past and a complaint against him was filed.”

Page five of the ruling mentions the disagreement between the revolutionary and the military courts and says that, on June 9, 2018, Branch 36 of the Revolutionary Court decided that Khomeini Shahr General and Revolutionary Court was the correct jurisdiction. Page six of the ruling also mentions an indictment against some of the defendants that was issued on May 9, 2018 by Branch 1 of the Revolutionary Court. At that point the branch believed that some of the charges against the defendants was within the jurisdiction of the military court and the disagreement between the two courts was yet to be resolved.

By taking into account the above, the date when Branch 36 of the Revolutionary Court resolved the disagreement between the two courts and determined the date of the indictment issued by Branch 1 of the Revolutionary Court, it would appear that “investigation of the defendants and their explanations and confessions about their roles in the killing of Asghar Harun-al-Rashidi” must have taken place before May 9, 2018, or at least before June 9 of that year. However, taking into account the date that the 14 defendants were arrested, this conclusion is questionable.

According to page seven of the ruling, Mehdi Salehi, the prime defendant, was arrested on November 3, 2019. And, according to page 25 of the ruling that includes Salehi’s defense, he said that before this arrest (most probably in the spring of 2018), he had voluntary presented himself at Branch 1 of the court and had been released after a few days in detention without having been charged, giving him the impression that he had been cleared.

Sentenced to Death in One Week

According to this information, Mehdi Salehi was arrested on November 3, 2019, only three months before the trial on February 1, 2020. A week later, he was sentenced to death. But the other defendants in the case, some of whom had confessed that they had witnessed criminal acts committed by Salehi, were arrested between February 8 and April 24, 2019, close to eight months before Salehi was arrested. It has to be concluded that if Salehi had indeed committed the crimes that the Revolutionary Guards claim he did, he would have escaped or would have gone into hiding after the arrest of individuals the Guards claim were members of an “organized gang.” But, according to an informed source, he led a normal life and was arrested unexpectedly.

The same is true, to various degrees, for other defendants in the case. The defendants’ confessions about their roles in the killing of Asghar Harun-al-Rashidi must have been obtained before May 9, 2018, but it is not clear why those who had been under investigation by the Revolutionary Guards before and had confessed to have played a role in the killing of Asghar Harun-al-Rashidi were allowed to lead normal lives and were only arrested on March 10, 2019, when, according to page eight of the Supreme Court’s ruling, five of them were apprehended.

Of those arrested on March 10, 2019 only one, Hadi Kiani, is on the list of defendants who have been sentenced to death and, besides Mehdi Salehi, who was arrested eight months later, the three others were arrested at their homes: Mehdi Bastami, two days later, Majid Nazari, four days later, and Abbas Mohammadi, 32 days later.

So those who have been sentenced to death on charges of carrying arms during the January 2018 protests and shooting at security agents remained in their homes after “preliminary investigations” before June 2018, and after the arrest of the first group of the “organized gang.” The Revolutionary Guards’ Intelligence Organization did not arrest them until March 2019, and then condemned them to death.

Salehi Not Listed in the Revolutionary Guards’ Report

Furthermore, according to the Supreme Court’s ruling, Mehdi Salehi did not confess to the crimes he was accused of during interrogations and there is no evidence that he did participate in January 2018 protests at all. Salehi’s name does not appear in the Revolutionary Guards’ report about the discovery of an “organized gang,” which was prepared on February 13, 2019.

Judging by this information and according to page 27 of the Supreme Court’s ruling, Mehdi Salehi was sentenced to death specifically because some of his codefendants said he was guilty. Authorities unceremoniously ignored his request to call on witnesses who could testify that at the time of the protests he had been at another location.

According to pages 16 to 18 of the ruling, of the other four who have been sentenced to death, Majid Nazari accepted he was at the scene of the protests and witnessed the shooting of Asghar Harun-al-Rashidi, but denied that he had participated in the protests or in the clashes with security agents. But Abbas Mohammadi, Mohammad Bastami and Hadi Kiani rejected all charges against them and denied they were even at the scene of the protests.

Only once, on page 27, does the Supreme Court’s 29-page ruling refer to a piece of evidence besides confessions by the defendants against themselves or against others. The piece of evidence in question is a video from a surveillance camera that purportedly shows Majd Nazari and others who have been sentenced to prison destroying a branch of the Islamic Loan Fund, a bank that extends interest-free loans in various parts of Iran.

But, based on the Supreme Court ruling, there is no evidence whatsoever in the case that proves the charges against Abbas Mohammadi, Mohammad Bastami, Hadi Kiani or, as mentioned, Mehdi Salehi, were accurate. Effectively, then, all the defendants in the case who have been sentenced to death have been convicted based on confessions by other defendants and the Revolutionary Guards’ report, not based on any evidence.

According to page nine of the ruling, the Revolutionary Guards’ report of February 13, 2019 describes the establishment of “an organized gang” of 13 people “who were armed and masterminded the unrest in the Juy Abad area of Khomeini Shahr and whose actions led to ‘corruption on earth’ and armed rebellion.” And, according to the ruling, each and every one of the accused that belonged to this gang were arrested and interrogated.

But these last statements only add to the doubts and the ambiguity surrounding the case. It is not clear how the Revolutionary Guards ascertained that there was “an armed gang that masterminded the unrest that led to an armed rebellion” before arresting the accused and before extracting forced confessions from them. There was not any other evidence in the case apart from the confessions that were later obtained from them under illegal conditions and without the presence of their lawyers.

Ruling Based on Non-existent Evidence

In the end, however, as page 27 of the ruling states, judges from the Supreme Court Branch 19 upheld the verdict issued by Branch 2 of Isfahan Revolutionary Court, based on “the evidence and the testimonies.”

The Supreme Court did not question the validity of the defendants’ forced confessions or that of their codefendants, confessions that the lawyers knew nothing about. The video from the surveillance camera supposedly shows five of the defendants destroying the bank in Juy Abad but does not show them using firearms or shooting at security forces. The ruling also cites drug charges against two of the defendants, as well as making the strange claim that during the November 2019 nationwide protests “no unrest” took place in Khomeini Shahr because the defendants were in prison.

Pages seven and eight of the ruling do not make it clear whether Vahid Salehi had a lawyer or not. Hadi Kiani and Bahram Barekatipour, two defendants in the same case, had appointed their own lawyers and 11 other defendants were given court-appointed lawyers. But, as the last page of the ruling shows, these same lawyers appealed the Revolutionary Court’s verdicts.

Among other items, the lawyers argued that: (1) no evidence other than confessions by other defendants was presented to support the charge against their clients, (2) the court did not call any witnesses during the trial, (3) the charge of “corruption on earth” was not proven, (4) the principle of face-to-face encounter between defendants to verify their accusations against each other was ignored, (5) Article 396 of the Code of Criminal Procedure that states that the defendants must be informed of the charges against them was ignored, (6) the defendants made contradictory statements, (7) confessions by some of the defendants were missing and (8) Mehdi Salehi’s name does not appear in the Revolutionary Guards’ report that claims an “armed gang” was set up to foment unrest.

In the end, the Supreme Court judges upheld the verdicts by Branch 2 of the Revolutionary Court exactly as it had initially been issued. The following defendants each received two sentences of death for using firearms (in the cases of Mehdi Salehi and the three defendants after him) or a machete (in the case of Hadi Kiani), shooting at security agents and inciting rebellion against the Islamic Republic:

(1) Mehdi Salehi, born in 1984, agency owner and father of a seven-year-old child,

(2) Majid Nazari, born in 1994, self-employed and single,

(3) Abbas Mohammadi, born in 1991, self-employed and father of two small children,

(4) Mohammad Bastami, born in 1992 and married, and

(5) Hadi Kiani, born in 1990, self-employed and married

Each of these five and nine other defendants were also sentenced to five years in prison for “corruption on earth” for taking part in a gathering aimed at undermining security, leading rioters to disrupt public safety, disturbing the public mind and damaging public and private property.

The families and lawyers of the convicts have remained silent and, beyond brief news articles, not much is known about what the accused and their families have gone through during this time. All that is known is that Mehdi Salehi was arrested in an extremely violent manner. The families have been threatened in an effort to prevent them from talking about the case. However on this occasion, and despite this painful silence, a copy of the full ruling issued by the Iranian Supreme Court is talking, even if the families are not.

A PDF copy of the Supreme Court’s ruling can be found here.

Iran Wire

About Track Persia

Track PersiaTrack Persia is a Platform run by dedicated analysts who spend much of their time researching the Middle East, in due process we fall upon many indications of growing expansionary ambitions on the part of Iran in the MENA region and the wider Islamic world. These ambitions commonly increase tensions and undermine stability.