I have been deeply moved by the ongoing protests in Iran, and angered greatly by the violent response of Iran’s leaders. Not that you’d know it from my name, but I’m half English and half Iranian. My mother left Iran in the 1960’s, believing even then, long before the 1979 Islamic Revolution, that it was no place for a young, ambitious woman in which to grow. Moreover, she, and her family, were Baha’i, a much-persecuted religious minority in Iran, all the more so after the Revolution. The Baha’i belief in the unity of all races, religions and a firm commitment to the equality of women and men meant it did not necessarily fit the Islamic Revolution’s world view. The Persian poet, Táhirih, an early heroine from Baha’i history, was one of the first women in Iran to publicly remove her hijab. She was executed in 1852, defiantly declaring ‘You can kill me as soon as you like, but you cannot stop the emancipation of women’.
Most of my mother’s family left Iran before the Revolution. But my impressionable teenage years were marred with stories of the abuse of those who stayed behind. The most unsettling family news being that of my cousin, detained by the predecessor of the so-called ‘morality police’, having her legs burnt, and scarred, as punishment for the ‘crime’ of wearing tights deemed ‘too revealing’. I also remember the disturbing news of the on-going persecution of the Baha’i community, most notably the hanging in 1983 of 10 Baha’i women in Shiraz, the youngest, Mona Mahmudnizhad, being just 17. Following the murder of 22 year old Mahsa Amini by Iranian morality police on 16 September 2022, arrested for showing hair from beneath her hijab, I have found myself even more addicted to Twitter, heartbroken and inspired in equal measure by the bravery of young Iranians, risking their lives, taking to the streets to the chant of ‘Zan, Zendigi, Azadi’ – ‘Woman, Life, Freedom’. Many more have died since, including Sarina Esameilzadeh, 16, beaten to death on 23 September in Karaj. A young woman plainly excited by life, all that lay ahead, and all life had to offer.
The Iranian Regime has always been quick to use violence to quash dissent. Since Mahsa Amini’s death more than 300 have been killed, including 43 children, and 15,000 arrested, many of them at risk now of execution. It is clear to me that the Government’s response to the protests amounts to a widespread and systematic attack on the civilian population - a Crime Against Humanity. As such, those directing the violence have committed a crime within the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court. But Iran is not a party to the ICC, and there is a little chance of a UN Security Council referral while Russia and China have the power to veto. The best chance for justice are universal jurisdiction prosecutions in domestic States, similar to the recent trial of Hamid Nouri in Sweden for the murder of political prisoners in Iran in 1988. Iran’s elite rulers also have extensive assets abroad; and their privileged children live and study outside of Iran. Domestic states should seize those assets as the proceeds of crime where they can.
I very much hope that when the UN Human Rights Council holds its Special Session on Iran on 24 November, it will establish an independent investigative and accountability mechanism to help gather evidence that may be used in proceedings around the world. The arm of international justice is long, it may not reach now, but history has shown that those with blood on their hands can expect, one day, to be summoned to answer for their crimes.
Every new image of another young person killed has moved me to add my voice to the protest. Yes, there are protests to join in London, and around the world, and of course, they show solidarity and support to those in Iran, as do the millions of social media posts and messages from people the world over. To date there are 80 million tweets on the #MahsaAmini hashtag, for comparison #BlackLivesMatter was 63 million. I am sure those messages are getting through. And I am sure they are well received by those on the frontline.
Growing up in London, my mother never taught me Farsi. I’m not sure why. Maybe because, as a single working mother, she just didn’t have time, or whether because she wanted to distance herself, and by extension me, from the tragedy befalling Iran. Either way, that lack of language contributed to an even greater disconnect between me and the land of my mother’s birth. Two weeks ago I decided to take up Farsi lessons, in the hope that one day soon I will be able to travel to Iran, and with slightly improved language skills, contribute, in some small way, to the re-birth of a great nation. I randomly booked an online one to one tutor, having no idea where they were based. I had assumed they were in the UK. But it soon became apparent she was in Iran. She explained we were limited in how we could connect due to the prohibition in Iran of various internet platforms since the start of, what she called, ‘the problems’.
I told a friend in London of my classes, he warned me not to talk politics with my tutor, for her sake, on account that our lessons were likely in some way monitored. I had no intention of doing so. But then, during our third class, she decided to teach me to write two words in Farsi - ‘Zan’ and ‘Azadi’ – woman and freedom. She said she couldn’t yet teach me ‘Zendigi’, life, as I’ve not yet learnt Farsi for the letter ‘g’. But that will no doubt soon come. Life. The brave youth of Iran deserve no less.
Steven Powles KC is a barrister at Doughty Street Chambers. He specialises in international crime and human rights.