Melissa Harris-Perry: Welcome to The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry. It's good to have you with us. Protest in Iran continue in response to the death of Mahsa Amini, the 22-year-old woman who died while in police custody after having been detained for allegedly wearing her hijab incorrectly. Since the protests began in September, HRANA, an Iranian human rights organization estimates that at least 344 protestors have been killed, and almost 16,000 have been arrested and detained.
Last week, in an open letter signed by the vast majority of Iran's members of Parliament, lawmakers call for "no leniency" against protestors. The letter reads, "We, the representatives of this nation ask all state officials, including the Judiciary, to treat those who waged war against the Islamic establishment and attack people's life and property like the Daesh, in a way that would serve as a good lesson in the shortest possible time."
Now, the letter does not specify the sort of punishment the protestors should be subjected to, but it should be noted that in 2021, Amnesty International reported that Iran executed at least 314 people, which is the second-highest known number behind only China. Yesterday an Iranian court issued the first known death sentence to a protestor since the demonstrations began in September. The protestor was accused of setting a government building on fire and charged with "war against God" and "corruption on Earth." With me now is Jason Rezaian, Global Opinions Writer for The Washington Post and former Tehran correspondent for The Washington Post. Jason, thanks for being with us.
Jason Rezaian: Thanks for having me back, Melissa.
Melissa Harris-Perry: One thing we noticed as we were planning to report on this story is that there is a ton of misinformation circulating right now, and much of it is about regards of the idea that there could be a mass execution for protestors. Can you help us to sort through what we actually know and understand about what's happening?
Jason Rezaian: Sure. I don't want to downplay the severity of what's going on in Iran right now, or the threat by lawmakers in Iran to demand the death penalty for so many peaceful protestors. The reality is that the vast majority of these people have not been given a death sentence yet. That being said, as you mentioned, Iran executes a very, very high number of people, the highest number per capita of any country in the world, year on year.
I think that we have to be extremely vigilant about what's going on inside Iran, how protestors and those being detained are being treated but ultimately, we also need to be very careful about the kind of information that we are respreading. Iran is a opaque place, more so because we don't have very many Western independent media sources inside the country so we have to do a lot of due diligence to figure out what's going on.
In this case, we know that that's what lawmakers in Iran are calling for and I think the one right point of this is actually it should really bring in to clear relief for people, the urgency of what's happening inside Iran right now and the need for the US and other democratic countries to stand up and say, "Hold on. Killing protestors is not something that we're going to abide."
Melissa Harris-Perry: Help us understand a bit about how the judicial system works and to the extent that there are death sentences, the speed with which they can be carried out because it is quite distinct from the US process.
Jason Rezaian: First of all, I would say that you shouldn't think of these courts, especially what they call the Revolutionary Court as the same kind of trial by a jury of your peers that we have in the United States and other countries. Oftentimes, especially when it comes to moments of uprisings in Iran, so many people can be put on trial, it's like an assembly line almost. They're brought before a "judge" and when I say judge, I use that term in air quotes because from my own experience, the man sitting in front of me, a man named Abolqasem Salavati, who is the most notorious judge in Iran, also known as the hanging judge or the judge of death, because for the number of death sentences he's served over the years.
The process is really short. People come up and he will read the indictment against them, and there won't be any evidence. There's no witnesses. They don't have a chance to speak. There's no lawyer present. The verdict is given and the next person is brought in. It is not a trial in any kind of legitimate way but it is part of the political theater, the grotesque political theater of many authoritarian regimes over the years, and a way for them to try and instill fear in people who might be considering continuing protesting.
Melissa Harris-Perry: You mentioned the closed-door trial that you went through in Iran in 2015. You also spent time there in a notorious prison in Tehran, used to hold political prisoners. That prison experienced a massive fire last month. What do we know about that prison fire?
Jason Rezaian: The information that came out of that fire is still being unpacked. Officially, the authorities in Iran said eight people died in the prison fire, my gut instinct, and from talking to other people who had previously been in Evin prison and still had communications with people who were still there, is that the number was likely much higher. There are all sorts of rumors and conspiracy theories swirling around about what happened, but what I would say is that it was a real sign that the regime doesn't have full control over the situation going on.
Prison fires don't happen in places where authorities have everything under control. We know that prisoners inside the prison rose up that day, we don't know if it was against an attack by prison authorities, or if it was sort of a continuation or solidarity with what was going on in the streets of Tehran. We do know that there was a brutal crackdown that live fire, tear gas was shot at these prisoners and people have opined about whether or not there was an attempt at a prison break, I can tell you that this is not a prison that is easily broken out of. There are walls upon walls upon locked steel doors behind more locked steel doors. It's not the kind of place where people can get out of without help.
I and others who had been in Evin before that shared a very similar experience when we heard this news. First and foremost, I have to admit, to see this place where I was unjustly held for almost a year and a half of my life. There was a bit of exhilaration involved, but then to think about the hopelessness and the knowledge that they're very little that you could do for these people that were trapped inside, it just broke my heart. I will tell you, Melissa, that in the almost seven years since I was released, nothing brought me back to that time there more than the news of that fire.
Melissa Harris-Perry: You've also written about two other journalists who are being held there. The two women who helped to break the story of Amini, they face the death penalty. What do we know about the conditions they're being held in and their likely fate?
Jason Rezaian: I'm very concerned about the two of them. Niloofar Hamedi who was there at the hospital and took pictures of Mahsa Amini still in a coma body in the hospital, and pictures of her parents embracing in the hallway, and a woman named Elahe Mohammadi, who went to cover Mahsa Amini's funeral in her hometown with full permission. These are accredited journalists. These are not people who are working outside the boundaries of Iranian official [unintelligible 00:09:13]. I'm quite concerned about their fates, but I'm equally, if not more concerned about the fate of the 60 or more other journalists that we know of who've been arrested during this time.
Most of them we know very little about their names. Many of them are women, many of them are Kurdish and I fear that the repercussions for a lot of them, the ones that are lesser known, might be even stiffer than for Hamedi and Mohammadi. It's a terrible situation. Iran is always near the bottom of the list of all the press freedom watchdog indices, but suddenly they've become perhaps the top jailer of journalists in the world. This is at a time where we already lack real insights into that country because foreign media has all been, almost entirely, shut out for the last couple of years. As journalists, I think we need to continue to stand up and speak for these people. I try and write about their situations as much as possible because otherwise, we'll have no insights into that country.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I just have to ask, because the people of Iran who continue to protest, they aren't surprised about the violence, the detentions, the silence around it, the assembly line of the court. Why are they willing to risk so much to be in the streets to protest, to raise their voices?
Jason Rezaian: Iranians have invested a lot over the last several decades in pushing back against the Islamic Republic. They've done it incrementally, for most of this time, asking for, and then later demanding small changes. That hasn't gotten them to the place that they hoped that it would. Over the last year or so, under the presidency of Ebrahim Raisi, the situation has gotten even worse. The economic situation of Iranians is worse than it's been in decades.
I think that there's a broad understanding that the regime does not have the answers for the long list of problems facing this society. It's an overwhelmingly young society, an educated society, and a society that yearns to be connected to the rest of the world, that is being governed by an increasingly aged ruling class that doesn't understand any of its concerns, its desires, its hopes, and so I think that they've reached a dead end and they don't feel like they have much to lose anymore.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I can't let you go without, moving to another place in the world for a moment, asking you about Brittney Griner. We are, similarly, working hard not to let her name disappear from the public consciousness. She was transferred last week in the midst of our own midterm elections so I guess maybe just over a week and a half ago now to Russian prison camp. Do we know anything more? Do you hold out any hope for Brittney Griner?
Jason Rezaian: Don't think we know much more than the fact that she's been transferred and to my knowledge, she hasn't had a communication with her family or the US Embassy in Russia. It's a horrible situation that she and Paul Whelan another American, who's been in prison in Russia for several years are facing, but I have to hold on hope. I was in the similar circumstances in a different country in a different time, but without hope, we don't have anything.
My fervent belief is that we have to keep saying the names of these people talking about them, whether it's Paul Whelan and Brittney Griner in Russia or the many journalists behind bars in Iran. The abuse of power, the terror inflicted on these people goes up exponentially when people stop talking about them. I am worried for Brittney Griner, but I know that she hasn't been forgotten.
I'm hopeful that the Biden administration will be able to intervene and secure her release but as I, unfortunately, predicted many months ago when Brittney Griner was first detained, this wasn't something that was going to get resolved easily.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Jason Rezaian is Global Opinions Writer for The Washington Post. Jason, thank you for taking the time with us today.
Jason Rezaian: It's always a pleasure. Thank you, Melissa
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