Iran: Executions may spur EU action

Update: Hundreds of demonstrators marched through Tehran today, until police and security officials blocked their way. Iranian authorities put opposition leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi under house arrest.

BRUSSELS, Belgium — In a warning to the opposition planning an Egypt-inspired rally in Tehran for Monday, Iranian Revolutionary Guard Commander Hossein Hamedani said that the activists were “nothing but a dead corpse.”

It’s far from an empty threat. According to human rights groups, at least 83 Iranians were put to death by the regime during last month alone; that’s one person every nine hours and more than in all of 2005, the year Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became president. In 2010, at least 542 were killed. If his regime continues at January’s rate, this year’s total will reach almost a thousand.

Even for people who have long documented the brutal behavior of the Iranian regime, the last few weeks have been a shock, said Aaron Rhodes, Hamburg-based policy adviser for the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran.

“The escalation in executions is something really quite frightening,” he said.

The European Union, the United States and international organizations have long expressed outrage and alarm at Iran’s high rate of executions and lack of due process in death-penalty convictions. The volume of these protestations duly rose in recent weeks along with the spike in deaths.

But the events of Jan. 29 in the north-central Iranian city of Semnan may finally shock the EU into doing more than fruitlessly lecturing the regime on respect for human rights. One of the victims of executions there has not only a face and a name, but a Dutch passport.

Without notifying even her family in advance, Iran hanged 45-year-old Zahra Bahrami, a citizen of both Iran and the Netherlands, for what it said was drug possession. Bahrami had been arrested in the sweeps of anti-government demonstrations following contested presidential elections in 2009. Her family vehemently denied the drugs charges. Dutch diplomats were not allowed to visit her as Iran does not recognize dual nationality.

The Dutch government was outraged, as were many Dutch citizens and lawmakers, who also questioned whether their government had done enough to try to rescue Bahrami. That remains under debate in The Hague, but post-execution actions were swift and furious. Diplomatic relations were immediately frozen. Dutch Ambassador to Iran Cees Kole was called home and the parliament has voted to try to sue Iran in the International Court of Justice for both blocking diplomatic visits and, if deemed possible, for the spree of executions.

“Each and every execution is shocking for me,” said Marietje Schaake, a Dutch member of the European Parliament (EP) who serves on the delegation for relations with Iran. But she hopes the more personal details of the Bahrami case will be the catalyst for the stronger line on human rights she has long wanted to see the EU take with Tehran.

Schaake said she believes Ahmadinejad has been able to effectively exploit the fear of his nuclear program so that world leaders tone down concerns about human rights in a thus-far futile effort to get to nuclear negotiations. It’s unacceptable for Iran not to recognize dual citizenship, she said, a stance that affects potentially hundreds of thousands of EU nationals with Iranian roots.

“Now is the moment,” Schaake said, “for a calculated clear signal where we say ‘Look, you’ve executed our citizen, you’re abusing the human rights of your citizens. We care deeply about the risks of the nuclear program but we’re elevating human rights on our political agenda. We know who’s responsible, we’ll hold you accountable and we won’t forget.'”

The EP has appealed numerous times to the European Commission and to EU foreign ministers “to impose sanctions targeting Iranian officials responsible for serious human rights abuses since the disputed presidential election of June 2009.” Schaake personally has pressed the matter with EU High Representative Catherine Ashton, responsible for guiding international nuclear talks with Iran, and says she’ll continue to do so.

The United States has been asking the EU to take the same steps. U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Philo Dibble was in Brussels recently meeting with EU officials urging them to consider sanctions similar to those implemented last fall by Washington, targeting eight members of the Iranian regime.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced the new measures on Sept. 29, saying “the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act of 2010 permits us to impose financial sanctions and deny U.S. visas to specific Iranian officials where there is credible evidence against them. In doing so today, we declare our solidarity with their victims and with all Iranians who wish for a government that respects their human rights and their dignity and their freedom.”

Dibble said relevant information on these cases has been shared with European officials. He said they had responded with “some receptivity.”

Rhodes, the human rights activist, said he is not surprised at the lack of enthusiasm. “Some of these lawmakers say ridiculous things like ‘we don’t want to isolate Iran,’” he said, suggesting that the nuclear sanctions already in place do that more than the proposed human rights sanctions would. “Politically speaking — and this is very obvious — it’s very difficult to get EU member states to agree on things. They all have their bilateral relationships with Iran. Most of them have trade relations with Iran.”

Nonetheless, he said, there’s a growing recognition that sanctions on key officials would be an appropriate way to deal with the government's injustices “without going down the route of collective punishment” of the Iranian people.

In the face of the explosion of attention to its human rights record, Tehran remains not only unrelenting but accusatory. In a press conference earlier this month, Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast slammed his country’s critics, insisting that 80 percent of the death sentences under scrutiny are for drug-related crimes.

“If the Islamic Republic of Iran decides not to fight drugs, western and European and other countries will be directly harmed,” he asserted.

Rhodes said, however, that the United Nations has determined that according to Iran’s own laws the drug crimes are not punishable by the death penalty. He also pointed to a lack of transparency in the Iranian justice system, which makes it impossible to ascertain whether charges have any validity.

As for what kind of turnout — and backlash — will accompany Monday’s rally, Rhodes said he doesn’t know what to expect. “One thing is clear – a lot of people are talking about it,” he said. “It’s a moment of expectation and tension — and extremely dangerous.”

Schaake, who attended a solidarity rally in Amsterdam on Saturday, said she would be surprised if the regime does not launch a heavy-handed crackdown on anyone in the streets.

Under such circumstances, she said, “I’m very impressed that the Iranian people have found the energy and the courage to speak out for their rights."

Editors note: This story was updated to correct an attribution.