Executions on a scale not seen for years. Mass arrests of regime critics including top film-makers. Trials of foreign nationals denounced as a sham by their families.
Activists argue Iran is in the throes of an intensified crackdown affecting all sectors of society from trade union activists, to campaigners against the enforced wearing of the headscarf for women, to religious minorities.
The repression comes one year into the rule of President Ebrahim Raisi, the ultra-conservative former judiciary chief who in August 2021 took over from the more moderate Hassan Rouhani.
Raisi and supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who remains Iran’s number one figure, are battling an economic crisis, as well as a sequence of disasters, including a deadly building collapse in Abadan in May, that have sparked unusual protests.
The economic troubles are partially caused by sanctions over the Iranian nuclear programme. But there is so far no sign world powers and Iran’s leadership are close to the breakthrough needed to revive the 2015 deal over the atomic drive.
“The current crackdown is intimately linked with the upsurge of protests in Iran,” said Ali Fathollah-Nejad, Iran expert at the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs and American University of Beirut.
He said nationwide protests in December 2017 and November 2019 had left their mark on Iran’s leadership and, while the protests are at root socio-economically driven, they “swiftly turn political and have targeted the entire establishment.”
“Street protests continue to be a threat to regime stability,” he told AFP.
The rise in executions has been startling, with Iran putting to death twice as many people in the first half of 2022 as it did in the same period a year earlier, according to Iran Human Rights, a Norway-based NGO, which now counts at least 318 hangings this year.
Amnesty International has said Iran is on an “execution spree” with hangings now proceeding at a “horrifying pace”. IHR said that those executed have included 10 women, with three hanged in a single day on July 27, all for murdering their husbands.
Meanwhile, Iran has also resumed amputating the fingers of prisoners convicted of theft, with at least two people suffering this punishment this year which was implemented by a guillotine specially installed in Tehran’s Evin prison, Amnesty said.
Meanwhile, on July 23, Iran also carried out its first public execution in two years.
“The widespread executions are used by the authorities to instil fear in society to prevent further anti-government protests,” said IHR’s director Mahmood Amiry Moghaddam.
There has been a growing movement inside and outside Iran — based around the hashtag “#edam_nakon” (don’t execute) –- to halt the use of the death penalty in the Islamic republic, which executes more people annually than any nation other than China.
One prominent voice has been director Mohammad Rasoulof, whose chilling anti-capital punishment movie “There is No Evil” won the Golden Bear at the Berlin film festival in 2020.
But Rasoulof was arrested in early July after launching in May a petition from directors and actors urging security forces to lay down their arms in the face of protests.
Fellow prize-winning director Jafar Panahi, who for years has been unable to leave Iran, was then detained when he went two days later to inquire about the whereabouts of Rasoulof and told he had to serve a six-year sentence previously handed out.
Behind bars, they join other celebrated dissidents, including the rights activist Narges Mohammadi whose life, rights groups fear, is at risk due to health conditions prison authorities are failing to treat.
The crackdown has also seen the arrest of a number of relatives of victims of the authorities’ violent suppression of protests in November 2019 who have been seeking justice for their loved ones.
“There is no reason to believe these recent arrests are anything but cynical moves to deter popular outrage at the government’s widespread failures,” said Tara Sepehri Far, senior Iran researcher at Human Rights Watch, accusing the government of resorting to “its repressive reflex of arresting popular critics”.
There have also been arrests in the last two months of the Bahais, in what the Bahai International Community (BIC) calls an “escalating crisis in the Iranian government’s systematic campaign” against the country’s largest non-Muslim religious minority.
At least 20 dual or foreign nationals remain jailed, under house arrest or stuck in Iran, according to the New York based Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI), in what their families term a policy of hostage-taking aimed at extracting concessions from the West.
In July, Iran allowed German-Iranian Nahid Taghavi out of jail for medical treatment and released Iran-UK-US citizen Morad Tahbaz with an ankle bracelet. Both, however, remain unable to leave Iran, while a Polish citizen, Belgian, Swede and two French have joined those in prison.
Those behind bars include German national Jamshid Sharmahd who, according to his family, was abducted in the Gulf in July 2020 and now risks the death penalty in a trial expected to reach its conclusion in the next weeks.
“This is a framed job against him aimed at persecuting dissidents and journalists who use their freedom of speech in the free world,” his daughter Gazelle Sharmahd told AFP. “It is outrageous we let this happen,” she said.
Afghan Taliban stronger than ever a year after takeover
A year since returning to power in Afghanistan, the Taliban are a stronger military force than ever, but threats to their rule do exist.
To tighten their grip, the Taliban have poured thousands of fighters into the Panshjir Valley, home to the only conventional military threat the group has faced since their takeover.
The scenic valley, located in northeastern Afghanistan, was for decades a bastion of resistance against outside forces, and the birthplace of the National Resistance Front (NRF).
On the other side of the spectrum, the Islamic State-Khorasan group (IS-K) has planted bombs and staged multiple suicide attacks in the past 12 months.
But the militants have focused on soft targets — chiefly mosques and Sikh temples — rather than tackle the Taliban head-on.
Following the chaotic exit of US-led troops on August 31 last year, Western threats to Taliban rule have also been crushed.
Still, the recent assassination of al Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri by a US drone strike on his hideout in Kabul shows how vulnerable Taliban leaders could be to a high-tech enemy.
While the Panjshir Valley is what worries the Taliban the most, analyst Michael Kugelman of the Washington-based Wilson Centre think-tank believes serious resistance is a long way off.
“If we start to see IS-K pick up its attacks and start carrying out more strikes… I think that the NRF could really benefit from that,” he told AFP.
“If Afghans are seeing their families getting blown up by IS-K… that could, I think, deliver a major dent to the Taliban legitimacy and that could benefit the NRF, and give them a window.”
‘Fear in our hearts’
Panjshir was the last province to fall to the Taliban in their lightning takeover of the country last year — holding out until September 6, three weeks after the capture of Kabul.
An uneasy calm then enveloped the valley — around 80 kilometres (50 miles) north of Kabul — until May, when the NRF emerged from the mountains to strike again.
In response, the Taliban sent in more than 6,000 fighters in long columns of armoured vehicles, striking fear into the hearts of residents.
“Since the Taliban arrived in the valley, people are in panic, they can’t talk freely,” said Amir, speaking to AFP in hushed tones in the provincial capital as a patrol passed by.
“The Taliban think that if youths are sitting together, then they must be planning something against them,” he added, asking not to be identified by his real name.
In the 1980s, fighters led by Ahmad Shah Massoud — nicknamed the Lion of Panjshir — fought the Soviet forces from its rugged peaks of Panshjir.
When the Red Army pulled out, Afghanistan descended into civil war and the Taliban seized control of the country.
Panjshir held out, though Massoud was assassinated two days before the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.
The NRF is led by his son Ahmad Masood, who like many NRF leaders is now in undisclosed exile.
Taliban forces now firmly control the main road that cuts through the valley, with checkpoints everywhere.
Thousands of people have fled the valley — once home to around 170,000 — and an atmosphere of fear prevails, with residents speaking only if their real names were not revealed.
“Previously, we used to feel good to come here,” said a visitor named Nabila, who was in the valley with her four sisters to attend their mother’s funeral.
“Now we have fear in our hearts. We are scared that if our husbands come, they will be dragged from the car,” she said, asking that her full name be withheld for fear of retribution.
Will vs capacity
Rights groups have accused the Taliban of committing widespread abuses in Panjshir — allegations they deny — including extrajudicial executions.
“Those arbitrarily arrested are also facing physical torture and beatings that, in some cases, even resulted in death,” Amnesty International said in June.
“The Taliban arrested and threatened to kill relatives of fighters who are with the resistance,” said Jamshed, a resident of a Panjshir town.
“These threats compelled many fighters to come down from the mountains and surrender.”
Still, Taliban authorities send mixed messages about the threat the NRF poses — denying their existence, on one hand, yet sending in troops to fight them.
“We have not seen any front; the front does not exist,” Abdul Hameed Khurasani, head of a Taliban special force unit deployed in the valley, told AFP.
“There are (only) a few people in the mountains. We are chasing them.”
Ali Nazary, head of the NRF’s foreign relations department, questions the Taliban’s claims.
“If we were a few fighters, and if we have been pushed to the mountains, why are they sending thousands of their fighters?” he asked.
Nazary said the NRF now had a fighting force of 3,000, and bases across the province — a claim impossible to independently verify.
Kugelman believes the NRF have the will to fight, but not the capacity.
“For NRF to be a truly effective group, it’s going to need… more external support, military and financial,” he said.
International economists ask Biden to release Afghan bank funds
More than 70 economists and experts, including Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz, called for Washington and other nations to release Afghanistan’s central bank assets in a letter sent to US President Joe Biden on Wednesday.
The letter said foreign capitals needed to return the roughly $9 billion in Afghan central bank assets to Da Afghanistan Bank (DAB) to allow the economy to function, despite criticism of behaviour by the ruling Taliban towards women and minorities.
“The people of Afghanistan have been made to suffer doubly for a government they did not choose,” the letter said. “In order to mitigate the humanitarian crisis and set the Afghan economy on a path toward recovery, we urge you to allow DAB to reclaim its international reserves.”
The letter, also addressed to US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, was signed by 71 economists and academic experts, many based in the United States as well as Germany, India and the United Kingdom.
Among them was former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis and Stiglitz, a Columbia University professor who received the Nobel Prize in economics in 2001 and is on the advisory board to the Washington-based think tank the Center for Economic and Policy Research, which organised the letter.
Afghanistan’s economy has plunged deep into crisis since the Taliban took over almost a year ago as foreign forces withdrew. The sudden cut in aid and other factors including inflation driven by conflict in Ukraine have contributed, but economists say the country is severely hampered by the inability of its central bank to function without access to its reserves.
This has resulted in a sharp depreciation of the Afghan currency, pushing up import prices, and led to a near collapse of the banking system with citizens facing problems accessing their savings and receiving salaries.
“Without access to its foreign reserves, the central bank of Afghanistan cannot carry out its normal, essential functions … the economy of Afghanistan has, predictably, collapsed,” the letter said.
Washington and other capitals say they want to find a way to release the funds for the benefit of the Afghan people while not benefiting the Taliban, whom they have condemned for imposing severe restrictions on women’s freedoms in the last year and allegedly carrying out human rights abuses including vendettas against former enemies.
The Taliban say they respect rights in accordance with their interpretation of Islamic law and that individual abuses would be investigated.
Despite their widely differing stances, both sides are engaged in detailed discussions over plans to possibly release the central bank assets, around $7 billion of which is held in the United States. Roughly half of that is currently set aside as it is the subject of a court battle related to the 9/11 attacks.
Key sticking points remain in the banking talks, in particular over US objections to the Taliban’s appointment of a deputy governor of the central bank who is subject to US sanctions.
Taliban fighters swap arms for books as hundreds return to school
Gul Agha Jalali used to spend his nights planting bombs — hoping to target an Afghan government soldier or, better still, a foreign serviceman.
These days, the 23-year-old Taliban member is studying English and has enrolled in a computer science course in the capital, Kabul.
“When our country was occupied by infidels, we needed bombs, mortars and guns,” says Jalali, an employee at the Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation.
Now there is a greater need for education, he told AFP.
Since the Taliban swept back to power in August last year, hundreds of fighters have returned to school — either on their own or pushed by their commanders.
The word “Taliban” actually means “students” in Arabic, and the hardline group movement’s name stems from the religious schools in southern Afghanistan it emerged from in the 1990s.
Most Taliban fighters were educated in these madrassas, where studies are largely limited to the Koran and other Islamic themes.
Many conservative Afghan clerics — particularly among the Taliban — are sceptical of more modern education, apart from subjects than can be applied practically, such as engineering or medicine.
“The world is evolving, we need technology and development,” said Jalali, who planted bombs for five years but is now among a dozen Taliban studying computers at the transport ministry.
The desire of fighters like Jalali to go back to school showed Afghans yearned for education, government spokesman Bilal Karimi said.
“Many motivated mujahideen who had not completed their studies reached out to educational institutions and are now studying their favourite courses,” he told AFP.
But education is a hugely problematic issue in the country, with secondary school girls barred from classes since the Taliban returned to power — and no sign of them being allowed back despite promises from some in the leadership.
While the earlier curriculum largely remains the same, studies on music and sculpture have been scrapped at schools and universities, which are suffering a paucity of teachers and lecturers following an exodus of Afghanistan’s educated elite.
But some Taliban students, like Jalali, have big plans.
Kabul’s Muslim Institute has a student body of around 3,000 — half of them women — and includes some 300 Taliban fighters, many distinctive with their bushy beards and turbans.
On a recent tour, AFP saw one Taliban fighter retrieve a pistol from a locker room at the end of his lessons — an incongruous sight in a pastel-coloured room adorned with posters of smiling co-ed students.
“When they arrive, they hand over their weapons. They don’t use force or take advantage of their position,” said an institute official who asked not to be named.
Desire to study
Amanullah Mubariz was 18 when he joined the Taliban but never gave up his desire to study.
“I applied to a university in India, but I failed my English test,” said Mubariz, now 25, declining to reveal his current position in the Taliban.
“That’s why I enrolled here,” he said, referring to the Muslim Institute.
Mohammad Sabir, in contrast, is happy to admit he works for the Taliban’s intelligence agency despite also being a student at the private Dawat University.
“I resumed my studies this year after the victory of the Islamic Emirate,” he says, his long hair and eyes lined with traditional kohl eyeliner peeking out from beneath a white turban.
Like Jalali, he paused his education to join the Taliban and also planted bombs and carried out ambushes with his brother in Wardak province.
All the Taliban students AFP spoke to said they wanted to use their education to help develop the country, so how do they feel about girls being deprived of that opportunity?
“Personally, as a young man, a student and a member of the Emirate, I think that they have the right to education,” said Mubariz.
“They can serve our country the way we are doing.”
“This country needs them as much as it needs us,” added Jalali.
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