Editor's note: This post will discuss sexual abuse, rape, torture, and forced marriages.
As human rights protests continued to engulf Iran, the regime also continued to crack down, imprisoning thousands of people connected to the demonstrations. The protests were triggered in September 2022 by the death of Mahsa Amini (who was also known as Jina), a young woman who died after being detained by Iran's morality police for "improper hijab." In November 2022, the first known death sentence was issued to a person for taking part in the protests.
Recent viral posts on social media claim that 15,000 people will be "mass executed" by the regime to "send a message." Some posts also quote an article that stated, "Female prisoners who are virgins must be raped before execution, to prevent them from going to heaven."
Are 15,000 Protesters in Danger of Mass Execution?
Let's start with the claim that has been bolstered by the likes of Newsweek, Justin Trudeau, and others: that 15,000 protesters have been arrested and will be "mass executed." That claim has been debunked as false by a number of journalists and experts, including reporter Shayan Sardarizadeh of the BBC:
In early November, the United Nations estimated the number of detainees in Iran arrested over six weeks as being around 14,000. That number has likely grown, and, according to a regularly updated document compiled by the Human Rights Activists in Iran network, currently stands at 15,820.
According to Iran Human Rights, there have been a total of 474 executions in Iran since the beginning of 2022, which do not include those related to protests that began in September. One unnamed protester has been sentenced to death and there is a high risk of a number of hasty executions. According to official reports at least 20 other protesters are facing charges punishable by death.
A Newsweek article erroneously repeated the claim that 15,000 people are facing execution in its headline. It has since been amended to state: "Iran Protesters Refuse to Back Down as First Execution Sentence Handed Down." BBC journalist Shayan Sardarizadeh criticized the earlier version of the report:
According to a letter signed by 227 parliamentarians in Iran, as reported by state media, they have called for the following response to the protests, which potentially could include the death penalty:
We, the representatives of this nation, ask all state officials, including the Judiciary, to treat those, who waged war [against the Islamic establishment] and attacked people's life and property like the Daesh [terrorists], in a way that would serve as a good lesson in the shortest possible time.
Human rights groups responded to the letter, warning that more charges and punishments, including the death penalty, could be coming soon for the protesters:
With the continuous repression of protests, many more indictments on charges carrying the death penalty and death sentences might soon be issued, and we fear that women and girls, who have been at the forefront of protests, and especially women human rights defenders, who have been arrested and jailed for demanding the end of systemic and systematic discriminatory laws, policies and practices might be particularly targeted.
Experts also expressed concern that the parliament's letter in which they called for decisive action against detainees and the death penalty was a "blatant violation of the separation of powers" between the judiciary and the government.
On Nov. 16, 2022, Iranian courts issued a second known death sentence in connection with the protests. The judiciary's website Mizan Online reported the defendant was accused of "terrorising people in the street using a bladed weapon, setting fire to the motorcycle of a citizen, and attacking a person with a knife."
However, concerns about mass executions are not new and are possibly based on historical precedent. In 1988, Iranian authorities executed thousands of prisoners across the country. Estimates vary, but they range from 2,800 to 5,000 executions. According to Human Rights Watch, "There is overwhelming evidence and consensus among Iran historians, human rights researchers, and policy analysts that these mass executions occurred." The burial places for most of the victims remain unknown.
Hussein Ali-Montazeri's memoirs also offered the most credible account of these executions from a government perspective. Montazeri was once the designated successor to the position of Iran's supreme leader, before falling out of favor for his open criticism of the regime.
Will Women Protesters Be Raped Before Execution?
The quote cited in the Reddit post to the effect that "Female prisoners who are virgins must be raped before execution" was in fact pulled from a 2015 article on the website of the NCRI Women's Committee, an Iran-focused advocacy and human rights organization. The claim emerges from another excerpt of Montazeri's memoirs. According to the NCRI Women's Committee, his memoirs appeared to acknowledge that young girls in prison were systemically raped in the 1980s:
He writes: "many of those who were being arrested in connection with the PMOI [revolutionary group] were girls and they were executing them on charges of waging war on God… I told the judiciary officials and Evin officials and others, quoting the Imam, that they must not execute girls from the PMOI. I told judges not to write death sentences for girls. This is what I said. But then perverted my words" and quoted me as saying: "Don't execute girls. First married them for one night and then execute them."
This is a clear acknowledgment that girls in prisons were being systematically raped by the guards and torturers. The sexual assault on prisoners was not confined to girls; from teenagers to aging women, all female prisoners were constantly exposed to the savage treatment. Many women prisoners became insane as a result of being raped by the guards.
Given that the post is based on an older account of sexual abuse in Iranian prisons, that does not prove that this particular punishment will be imposed on women imprisoned today, though sexual abuse is still a very real danger to these prisoners and should not be downplayed. A report published on Tavaana, a civil society and civic education organization set up by Iranians in the diaspora, provides more detail on the systemic rapes of female prisoners in the 1980s:
The aforementioned submission by [Justice for Iran (JFI)] was the result of detailed and pioneering research published in a two-part report entitled 'Crime and Impunity' the first part of which clearly establishes that raping virgin girls, arrested for political activism, prior to their execution took place systematically inside Iranian prisons during the 1980s, in particular, the 1988 mass executions when thousands of prisoners were summarily tried, tortured, raped, executed and buried in mass graves.
The rapes, rooted in a twisted misrepresentation of one of Ayatollah Khomeini's orders, were justified under the religious term of siqih or temporary marriage. Ayatollah Montazeri, the deputy leader of the time who went on to become an opponent of Ayatollah Khomeini, was able to convince the leader of the revolution that girls (young women), who were due to be executed, should not be, as there are Islamic interpretations stating that they should be given prison sentences, as is prescribed for female apostates. However the judicial and security officials, who had no intention of halting the execution of women, interpreted the order as a dictate to kill as long as the girls were to lose their virginity prior to their execution. This was one reason behind the raping of a large number of female political prisoners prior to their execution; different prison officials in the 1980s tried to find or create so-called shari'a-based justifications for this action.
A 2014 report on Iran Wire detailed how Student Issues, a website run by the office of Iran's Supreme Leader, challenged the veracity of claims that systemic rapes and forced marriages carried out in the summer of 1987. They said, "The ban on the execution of girls unless they are married is a rumour spread by enemies to whitewash their own crimes and treasons against the country and to damage the reputation of the Islamic system."
Iran Wire reported: "Forcing virgins to become concubines and raping them before execution, the answer went on to say, is a false claim by the 'counter revolution' and a baseless impression extrapolated from the correspondence of Ayatollah Montazeri."
If true, that does not mean that sexual abuse does not take place in Iranian prisons today, particularly amidst the detainment of thousands of protesters. Human Rights Watch shared reports of torture and sexual assault meted out to detained protesters:
The Iranian authorities have subjected detainees to various forms of physical and psychological torture and other ill-treatment. Two female detainees arrested during protests in Kurdistan province told Human Rights Watch that authorities tortured them, including beating them with batons, electric shocks, sexual assault, verbal assault, and threats.
A Nov. 12, 2022 report in Iran International described how a volunteer network of activists had been collecting stories on the conditions of prisoners. The "Volunteer Committee to Follow-Up on the Situation of Detainees" reported cases of torture, sexual harassment, rape threats, and more. Some detainees reported being placed alongside criminals and being sexually abused by those criminals.
Other viral videos have shown Iranian security forces harassing and molesting women protesters. Another report describes around 100 female prisoners in Tehran being "systematically abused" by guards by being strip searched, harassed, interrogated, and threatened, and being held in inhumane conditions.
The claim that the 15,000 protestors currently imprisoned will be executed en masse is based on unfounded speculation. The claim that female prisoners will be raped before execution relies solely on reports and accounts from the 1980s about systemic sexual abuse of women in Iran's prisons. Unproven and false claims such as these potentially delegitimize reports of the very real human rights violations going on in Iran today.
We will continue to monitor the situation and update this story as we learn more about conditions on the ground. Until we get independent reporting from Iran about the actual conditions of detainees and their sentencing, these claims amount to little more than unfounded rumors.