The young man executed in Iran was given only 15 minutes to defend himself against the death penalty

Mohammad Mehdi Karami told his family that he had been tortured in jail
Mohammad Mehdi Karami told his family that he had been tortured in jail
Khushbu Kumari

Iranian courts are sentencing protesters in snap trials that human rights groups describe as grossly unfair

Four young men have been executed in connection with the protests that broke out in Iran four months ago, while another 18 people have been sentenced to death. According to human rights groups, all of them were convicted in grossly unfair trials.

Mohammad Mehdi Karami, a 22-year-old karate champion, was hanged on January 7, just 65 days after his arrest.

As the BBC's Persian service has learned, he had less than 15 minutes to defend himself in court.

His story shows how authorities in Iran use sham judicial proceedings to instill fear in protesters, who are demanding freedom and an end to clerical rule.

Don't say anything to mom

The protest movement began after the death in custody of Mahsa Amini , a 22-year-old woman who was arrested by the morality police last September for allegedly not wearing the mandatory veil “properly”.

The authorities described the protests as “riots” and began a violent crackdown. At least 481 protesters have been killed by security forces, according to Iran Human Rights, a Norway-based non-governmental organization.

Karami was arrested in connection with the killing of a member of the Basij paramilitary force during protests in the city of Karaj, west of Tehran, on November 3.

He was later charged with the crime of “corruption on Earth” and was tried before a Revolutionary Court in Karaj on November 30 along with 16 others, including three children, also accused of participating in the murder.

Defendants are entitled to legal representation in Iran but, in sensitive cases like this, or in espionage cases, they are not allowed to choose their own lawyers. Instead, the court appoints one from a list approved by the judiciary.

Journalists and family members of the defendant are also prohibited from being present at the trial, so the only window into what goes on behind closed doors is heavily edited footage shared by the judiciary.

In one such video, Karami is seen visibly distraught as he “confesses” to hitting the Basij member over the head with a rock. His public defender does not question or dispute this and instead apologizes to the judge. Karami then says that he was “tricked” and sits down.

On December 5, Karami was convicted and sentenced to death . Four of his co-defendants were also sentenced to death, while the children and eight other people were sentenced to long prison terms, according to the judiciary.

It is common for the authorities to put pressure on the relatives of the accused to remain silent.

But Mohammad's father, Mashaalah Karami, who works as a street vendor of tissue packs, gave an interview to the “Etemad” newspaper, in which he claimed that his son had called him crying the day he was sentenced to death.

“Dad, they gave us the verdict. Mine is the death penalty. Don't say anything to mom,” his father recalled, reiterating the innocence of his son.

chilling stories

Later, the opposition activist group “1500 Tasvir” posted an account on social media claiming that Karami had been tortured.

According to him, Karami told his family during a prison encounter that guards had beaten him unconscious. The officers assumed he was dead and dumped his body in a remote area , but as they were leaving they realized he was still alive.

Karami also told his family that security officers had “touched his genitals every day and threatened to rape him” during interrogations, according to his account.

According to Iran's legal system, when a court issues a death sentence, it is sent to the Supreme Court for approval. But even if the Supreme Court approves the death sentence, it could still be appealed.

Karami's father explained to “Etemad” that he had tried to contact the state-appointed lawyer several times, but had received no response.

So the family tried to hire one of Iran's leading human rights lawyers, Mohammad Hossein Aghasi.

“Mohammad called me three times from prison and asked me to represent him. His parents also urged me to represent his son,” Aghasi confirmed.

Aghasi wrote to the local court and then to the High Court. At each stage, his letters were either ignored or rejected. The appeal that he filed against the Supreme Court decision was also dismissed by a judge.

The authorities have repeatedly said that speedy trials of protesters and harsh sentences handed down against them are intended to have a deterrent effect.

Vulnerable and isolated

Seyed Mohammad Hosseini, 39, a volunteer children's trainer, was also hanged on 7 January, after being tried along with Karami for the same offence.

His parents are deceased, so there was no family campaign on social media to save his life after he was sentenced. However, many Iranians shared a post that read: “We are all Mohammad's family.”

Hosseini, who suffered from bipolar disorder, was able to obtain independent legal representation after the Supreme Court upheld his death sentence.

Lawyer Ali Sharifzadeh Ardakani was able to visit him in prison in December and tweeted about the meeting.

“She cried throughout the visit. He spoke of torture, how he was beaten while he was handcuffed and blindfolded, how he was kicked in the head and lost consciousness,” Ardakani wrote.

“[He is] a man whose confessions have all been obtained under torture and have no legal validity.”

Ardakani filed the documents to appeal the Supreme Court's decision and was told to return to court on January 7. But when he was going there, he heard that Hosseini had been hanged.

The lawyer was subsequently detained by the authorities, and is currently out on bail. The BBC's Persian service has learned that it is facing a complaint from the Karaj prosecutor for the tweet alleging that Hosseini was tortured.

No Exit

Human rights groups have denounced Iran's judicial system for relying on “forced confessions”.

As a source told the BBC's Persian service, state-appointed lawyers actually act as “interrogators” during trials, increasing pressure on defendants, rather than defending them.

According to Iran Human Rights, at least 109 protesters are currently at risk of execution, having been sentenced to death or charged with capital offences. The average age is 27 years, with three under 18.

After Seyed Mohammad Hosseini and Mohammad Mehdi Karami were hanged, Western countries and human rights groups demanded that Iran immediately stop the executions.

But a week later, the judiciary announced that it had hanged Alireza Akbari , a British-Iranian dual national, a former senior Iranian Defense Ministry official who was convicted of spying for the UK.

In an audio recording obtained by the BBC's Persian service last week, Akbari alleged that he had been tortured and forced to “confess” to crimes he had not committed.

Meanwhile, another heartbreaking symbol of the protest movement was shared on social media, a video of Maashalah Karami kneeling at her son's grave, wearing what appears to be Mohammed's yellow sweater.

He is seen holding a photo of his son in one hand and grabbing his own throat with the other hand, imitating a noose.

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