Twitter is well-known for acrimonious debate and Iranians on Twitter exemplify just how contentious the platform can get. Issues great and small often deeply divide Iranians, with the blue bird logo coming to be a symbol of these harsh divisions.
Rarely does a political issue unite large swathes of Iranian public opinion. In the last 24 hours, though, one such issue has arisen: the demand to halt the impending execution of three young Iranian men, all born in the 1990s, who are in danger of losing their lives just because they followed hundreds of thousands of others in joining the November 2019 protests.
The execution order for Amirhossein Moradi, Saeed Tamjidi and Mohmmad Rajabi has been approved by the country’s Supreme Court. The move has outraged a very broad spectrum of Iranians. At the time of writing more than 4.2 million have tweeted using the Persian hashtag #Don’t_Execute_Them, elevating it to the number one hashtag worldwide for some hours on July 14. It also became the top or second in countries with large Iranian diasporas, and in those that host circumventing tools that allows those in Iran to get around the ban on Twitter: Canada, Netherlands, Germany, Sweden and the United Arab Emirates. Twitter remains banned in Iran, despite it being popular with virtually all Iranian politicians including the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, who has official Twitter accounts in many different languages.
Among those who have tweeted in support of the three men are elected Iranian politicians such as Mehdi Hajati, a city council member in Shiraz, who daringly wrote: “Who do you represent? All Iranians are united in demanding #Don’t_Execute_Them”.
Also tweeting his dissent with the ruling was Mostafa Tajzade, a former deputy interior minister and a leading figure in the reformist camp.
This moment of broad national unity went to such an extent that the same hashtag was also used by Reza Pahlavi: the crown prince of the deposed Iranian monarchy, and one of the most popular figures of the country’s exiled opposition in the US. "Know that the Iranian nation will not tolerate the execution of these young protesters," he wrote to the regime. "Stop your crimes against humanity."
Human rights groups praised the #Don’t_Execute_Them” campaign and called on the Iranian government to take action. “This clear unified call to stop these executions must be heard," said Saloua Ghazouani Oueslati, the regional director of the global free expression organization ARTICLE 19. "The authorities must listen to the will of their own people who are urging them to respect their human rights obligations."
Support for the movement has gone beyond the political sphere. Many Iranian celebrities have taken to social media to show support for the #Don’t_Execute_Them campaign. Examples include Hossein Mahini, a popular football player on the national team, and Asghar Farhadi, considered one of the best filmmakers in the world, who has won Oscars for his celebrated films “A Separation” and “The Salesman.”
Who are the accused?
Moradi, Tamjidi and Rajabi are respectively 26, 26 and 28 years old. All the evidence points to them having been ordinary young Iranian men who simply took part in the protests. Their treatment by the criminal justice system might thus appear bizarre — but it is also typical of Iran’s arbitrary and brutal system of judicial repression.
These young men were not among the up to 7,000 protesters who were originally arrested for their part in the November demonstrations. They were detained in an unrelated skirmish that followed them answering an ad for a mobile phone for sale. Saeed and Mohammad left the scene but Amirhossein was arrested and taken for questioning. Police asked to go over the videos in his phone to determine what exactly had happened at the scene of the skirmish. But when they went through the phone, they found out that Amirhossein had taken part in the protests and filmed them. He was now threatened with graver charges.
Wanting to keep his two friends out of danger, Amirhossein was able to alert them in time. Saeed and Mohammad both fled to Turkey and claimed asylum. But in an astonishing action, Turkey extradited the two back to Iran. In the nightmarish judicial process that followed, the three were ultimately sentenced to death by the infamous Abolghasem Salavati: a brutal judge who has tried more high-profile political prisoners than any other else in his profession and is known to take his orders directly from the security bodies of the Islamic Republic (admission of bias: Salavati also sentenced my father, Mostafa Azizi, to eight years in prison, of which he served 15 months before being released in 2016). Babak Paknia, Moradi’s lawyer, has spoken about his client on his Instagram account and in media interviews. According to Moradi, he was repeatedly barred from taking part in trial and has not even been able to review the case against his client.
Initially unconfirmed reports that the Supreme Court had approved the execution orders jolted Iranian activists into making noise about the three young men. Things became further heated yesterday, July 14, after the judiciary’s spokesperson, Gholamhossein Esmaili, confirmed the news and said the executions were due to go ahead. Esmaili went on to defend the decision, saying: “It was the help of the God Almighty that revealed the crimes of these three men. They had a major role in the disturbances [November 2019 protests] but were not arrested on the scene; they were arrested later in an armed robbery.”
Then, in the early hours of July 14, another not-dissimilar travesty of justice took place, leaving Iranians incensed. Two Kurdish-Iranian political prisoners, Diako Rasoolzade and Saber Sheikh Abdollah, who have been in prison since around 2014, were finally executed in the northwestern city of Urmia. They stood accused of organizing a bomb attack in 2010 that killed 12 civilians in the city of Mahabad on the anniversary of Iran-Iraq War. But human rights organizations such as Amnesty International have repeatedly stressed that there is no credible evidence linking the two young men to this incident.
The shocking and unexpected killing of Diako and Sabar helped spur the movement to save the lives of Amirhossein, Saeed and Mohammad. Word of mouth and celebrities’ large audiences have meant that before long, the hashtag has come to dominate social media in Iran. Many Iranians went to sleep anxiously on Tuesday, praying not to wake up to horrible news. Executions often take place at dawn.
Whatever the final outcome of this wave of Twitter activity, it has also laid bare the broad support for November protests. As Iranians find themselves in increasingly dire financial straits, they can only appreciate those who came out in November. It also shows that beyond the acrimony of Twitter, there are issues on which a very large number of Iranians can agree: especially when it comes to state brutality in the Islamic Republic. A cleric in Tehran who once served as chief of staff to a president of the Islamic Republic has thus issued the same demand as a Jewish Iranian-Israeli journalist in Haifa.
Iranians have used many different symbols and references to express their opposition to the executions. Some recalled the very revolutionary hymns that had helped bring the Islamic Republic to power in 1979: “You kill the youth of the homeland! Allah is Great.” Others used a well-known poem by the great contemporary poet Hamid Mossadegh: “If I stand up, if you stand up, we will all stand up.”
The building of such a broad coalition and harnessing of such collective power beyond Twitter may help free the three young men. But in addition, it has the potential to create the change they were protesting for in the first place.