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What Iran's execution of a prisoner linked to recent protests means for demonstrators

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Iran held its first execution linked to nationwide anti-government protests there. Mohsen Shekari was hanged yesterday following what rights groups called a trial without due process. He was accused of this vague crime we've discussed on this program - waging war against God and allegedly attacking a member of the Iranian paramilitary forces. Let's discuss this now with Negar Mortazavi, who is a journalist and host of "The Iran Podcast." Welcome back.

NEGAR MORTAZAVI: Thanks for having me, Steve.

INSKEEP: Are you surprised that the government went ahead with this execution?

MORTAZAVI: Unfortunately, I don't think anyone who has been following their playbook is surprised. I was surprised at the speed of it - almost two months - very quickly, the way they got this through. And even though he was trying to appeal and denied the charges, they went ahead and basically executed him. But this seemed to be coming, and it's consistent with the comments and the, basically, tone that we've been hearing from Iranian officials. And also, with the bloody and violent repression that we're seeing on the streets from security forces, it all goes back into the playbook of them wanting to be rigid, show no flexibility and crush these protests at every cost.

INSKEEP: Does this look like the first of many executions?

MORTAZAVI: It's hard to say how many. But so far, at least six have been handed the death penalty, and there's fear from human rights organizations that there could be as many as 20. I don't know at what speed they would do this. I think they're sort of testing the public opinion. They're also trying to send a message to instill fear that this is what's going to happen to you if you continue. But I think it could also backfire. This could generate even more anger and have more protesters on the streets, so they're - I think the state is also watching that very carefully.

INSKEEP: Well, let's let's continue to watch that ourselves as well. It's very early, but based on what you were able to gather from outside the country, how are people seeming to respond to news of this execution in Iran?

MORTAZAVI: I see a lot of outrage on social media, even from demographics that are not seen as completely opposed or dissident to the government - some who have been more sort of internal, more reformist or moderate voices that are speaking up against this. A prominent Sunni clergy, Molavi Abdolhamid, has spoken out against it. The leader of the Green Movement, Mir Hossein Mousavi, who is on house arrest, has spoken against it. And basically, the tone is, first of all, this charge does not correspond to what he was accused of, and also that these kind of executions are not going to stop. The protesters are just going to generate more anger and more protests, as we've seen in the past - over 400 protesters killed. And every funeral seems to be turning into a new protest, with - bringing new people on the streets.

INSKEEP: Oh, let's talk briefly about new protests. I'm thinking about the news of this execution spreading to families of the thousands of people currently detained for their role in the protests. There must be any number of people across the country for whom this would be a very, very personal piece of news.

MORTAZAVI: Definitely. So it's not only the ones who have been already handed the death penalty. It's also the ones who are on the - basically waiting for their charges. And, as we know, thousands - over 15,000 protesters have been arrested. And the past has also shown - for example, in 2019, many of them were handed harsh sentences. So even if it's not the death penalty, it could be something very harsh - long prison sentences and such, and so the families are watching this with horror and fear.

INSKEEP: 2019 - an earlier round of protests. Negar Mortazavi, it's always a pleasure talking with you. Thank you so much.

MORTAZAVI: Thanks for having me, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.