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Peter Kenyon

More Iranians face possible execution as authorities seek to crush continuing unrest

People protest against the Iranian government at a demonstration in Istanbul, Turkey, on Saturday. In recognition of those allegedly executed by the Iranian government, protesters wore nooses around their necks and held photographs of people who have been killed. (Onur Dogman/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images)

ISTANBUL — The Iranian government has executed two people since protests erupted in September, following the death of a 22-year-old Kurdish woman, Mahsa Amini, in the custody of Iran's so-called "morality police."

On Dec. 8, Mohsen Shekari, 23, was the first to be put to death. He was hanged after taking part in protests in Tehran. Four days later, Majid-Reza Rahnavard, also 23, was executed publicly — his body was hanged from a crane in the northeastern city of Mashhad. Like Shekari, he was convicted of "waging war against God," a capital offense.

The executions are Tehran's main response to protests that swept the country since Amini's death, and they signal that Iran's clerical leadership feels it has few options other than brute force to quell the unrest.

A pro-government TV channel aired audio that was described as Rahnavard's confession to police. NPR could not immediately confirm the authenticity of the audio.

"Unfortunately, my own arrow hit my brother," the recording says — seen as a reference to the Basij militia members Rahnavard was convicted of fatally stabbing.

There are ongoing efforts to punish protesters

The government continues to try to quell the anti-regime demonstrations, which began as an expression of public outrage at Amini's killing but quickly transformed into calls for the toppling of Iran's cleric-led regime.

Official efforts to punish those linked to the unrest are also continuing.

The deputy head of Allameh University in Tehran told Iran's Mehr news agency that some 20 students were banned from taking classes after they participated in a Dec. 7 rally.

"These students are people who insisted on continuing their path and did not appreciate our tolerant behavior," the university official is quoted as saying.

The Norway-based group Iran Human Rights says at least 469 people have been killed in unrest since the demonstrations began, including 63 children.

The number of prisoners is much larger. Rights groups estimate at least 18,000 people have been detained, with at least 39 seen as at risk of receiving a death sentence or being executed.

Among those detained is actress Taraneh Alidoosti, star of The Salesman, which won the best foreign-language film Oscar in 2017. A statement from Iran's judiciary said several celebrities including Alidoosti had been summoned for "unsubstantiated comments about recent events" and for publishing "provocative material in support of street riots."

A doctor is among those facing a death sentence

One of those sentenced to death is Dr. Hamid Ghareh Hassanlou, a 53-year-old radiologist. His wife Farzaneh Ghareh Hassanlou has been sentenced to 25 years' solitary confinement. Both were arrested after they were caught up in a protest.

Hassanlou was tortured and did not have access to his own lawyer, anti-regime activists say. The attorney appointed by the government reportedly mounted no defense, instead advising his client to accept the charges of crimes against God.

Hassanlou's brother Hassan, who lives in the Netherlands, tells NPR Hamid is by no means a violent or dangerous man.

"No, no violence at all, quite the opposite," he says. "On the personality level, very opinionated. And on something he believed in, he could be as stubborn as hell."

Hassan Hassanlou says his brother formed a group that built four hospitals in poor neighborhoods, and that is totally in keeping with his nature.

His biggest regret, he says, is that the last time Hamid called him, he was unable to take the call.

"I didn't have the chance to call him back," he said. "And I always regret not answering that specific call."

If he could get a message to his brother now, Hassan knows exactly what he'd say.

"I'm proud of you," he says. "Because I honestly am. I really miss him, but at the same time, I'm so proud of him. I never asked in my thoughts, 'Why did you do this?' Of course, the implication was huge for him, for his family, for all the people around him. But I'm still proud of him."

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