It is early dawn as seven young men are led to the gallows amid shouts of "Allah Akbar" (Allah is the greatest) from a crowd of bearded men as a handful of women, all in hijab, ululate to a high pitch. A few minutes later, the seven are hanged as a mullah shouts: "Alhamd li-Allah" (Praise be to Allah).
The scene was Wednesday in Mashad, Iran's second most populous city, where a crackdown against "anti-Islam hooligans" has been under way for weeks.
|Five convicted criminals are hung in Mashad, Iran, on Wednesday Aug. 1, 2007.|
The Mashad hangings, broadcast live on local television, are among a series of public executions ordered by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad last month as part of a campaign to terrorize an increasingly restive population. Over the past six weeks, at least 118 people have been executed, including four who were stoned to death. According to Saeed Mortazavi, the chief Islamic prosecutor, at least 150 more people, including five women, are scheduled to be hanged or stoned to death in the coming weeks.
The latest wave of executions is the biggest Iran has suffered in the same time span since 1984, when thousands of opposition prisoners were shot on orders from Ayatollah Khomeini.
Not all executions take place in public. In the provinces of Kurdistan and Khuzestan, where ethnic Kurdish and Arab minorities are demanding greater rights, several activists have been put to death in secret, their families informed only days after the event.
The campaign of terror also includes targeted "disappearances" designed to neutralize trade union leaders, student activists, journalists and even mullahs opposed to the regime. According to the latest tally, more than 30 people have "disappeared" since the start of the new Iranian year on March 21. To intimidate the population, the authorities also have carried out mass arrests on spurious grounds.
According to Gen. Ismail Muqaddam, commander of the Islamic Police, a total of 430,000 men and women have been arrested on charges related to drug use since April. A further 4,209 men and women, mostly aged between 15 and 30, have been arrested for "hooliganism" in Tehran alone. The largest number of arrests, totaling almost a million men and women according to Mr. Muqaddam, were related to the enforcement of the new Islamic Dress Code, passed by the Islamic Majlis (parliament) in May 2006.
Most of those arrested, he says, spent a few hours, or at most a few days, in custody as "a warning." By last week, 40,000 were still in prison. Of these, 20,363 men and women are held on charges related to violating the Islamic Dress Code. According to the Deputy Chief of Police Gen. Hussein Zulfiqari, an additional 6,204 men and women are in prison on charges of "sexual proximity" without being married.
The wave of arrests has increased pressure on the nation's inadequate prison facilities. At a recent press conference in Tehran, the head of the National Prisons Service, Ali-Akbar Yassaqi, appealed for a moratorium on arrests. He said Iran's official prisons could not house more than 50,000 prisoners simultaneously while the actual number of prisoners at any given time was above 150,000. Mr. Yassaqi also revealed that each year on average some 600,000 Iranians spend some time in one of the 130 official prisons.
Since Mr. Ahmadinejad ordered the crackdown, work on converting 41 official buildings to prisons has started, with contracts for 33 other prisons already signed. Nevertheless, Mr. Yassaqi believes that, with the annual prison population likely to top the million mark this year, even the new capacities created might prove insufficient.
There are, however, an unknown number of unofficial prisons as well, often controlled by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps or militias working for various powerful mullahs. Last week, human rights activists in Iran published details of a new prison in Souleh, northwest of Tehran, staffed by militants from the Lebanese branch of Hezbollah. According to the revelations, the Souleh prison is under the control of the "Supreme Guide" Ali Khamenehi, and used for holding the regime's most "dangerous" political foes.
The regime especially fears the growing free trade union movement. In the past four months, free trade unionists have organized 12 major strikes and 47 demonstrations in various parts of the country. They showed their muscle on International Labor Day on May 1 when tens of thousands of workers marched in Tehran and 18 provincial capitals. The regime retaliated by arresting scores of trade unionists and expelling many others.
According to Rajab-Ali Shahsavari, leader of the Union of Contractual Workers, 25,795 unionists have been fired since April. He estimates that now over 1,000 workers are losing their jobs each day, as the regime intensifies its crackdown.
Worse still, the number of suspicious deaths among workers has risen to an all-time high. According to Deputy Labor Minister Ibrahim Nazari-Jalali, 1,047 workers have died in "work-related accidents" since April. Labor sources, however, point out that none of the accidents have been investigated and, in at least 13 cases, the workers who died may have been killed by goons hired by the regime.
The biggest purge of universities since Khomeini launched his "Islamic Cultural Revolution" in 1980 is also under way. Scores of student leaders have been arrested and more than 3,000 others expelled. Labeling the crackdown the "corrective movement," Mr. Ahmadinejad wants university textbooks rewritten to "cleanse them of Infidel trash," and to include "a rebuttal of Zionist-Crusader claims" about the Holocaust. Dozens of lecturers and faculty deans have been fired.
The nationwide crackdown is accompanied with efforts to cut Iranians off from sources of information outside the Islamic Republic. More than 4,000 Internet sites have been blocked, and more are added each day. The Ministry of Islamic Orientation has established a new blacklist of authors and book titles twice longer than what it was a year ago. Since April, some 30 newspapers and magazines have been shut and their offices raided. At least 17 journalists are in prison, two already sentenced to death by hanging.
The regime is trying to mobilize its shrinking base by claiming that the Islamic Republic is under threat from internal and external foes. It was in that context that the four Iranian-American hostages held in Tehran were forced to make televised "confessions" last month about alleged plots to foment a "velvet revolution."
Over 40 people have been arrested on charges of espionage since April, 20 in the southern city of Shiraz. Khomeinist paranoia reached a new peak last week when the authorities announced, through the Islamic Republic News Agency, the capture of four squirrels in the Western city of Kermanshah and claimed that the furry creatures had been fitted with "espionage devices" by the Americans in Iraq and smuggled into the Islamic Republic.
Mr. Ahmadinejad likes to pretend that he has no worries except "Infidel plots" related to the Islamic Republic's nuclear ambitions. The truth is that, faced with growing popular discontent, the Khomeinist clique is vulnerable and worried, extremely worried. The outside world would do well to carefully monitor and, whenever possible, support the Iranian people's fight against the fascist regime in Tehran.
Iran today is not only about atomic bombs and Iranian-American hostages. It is also about a growing popular movement that may help bring the nation out of the dangerous impasse created by the mullahs.
Mr. Taheri is author of "L'Irak: Le Dessous Des Cartes" (Editions Complexe, 2002).