Editor’s note: Iranian authorities have barred journalists for international news organizations from reporting on the streets and ordered them to stay in their offices. This report is based on the accounts of witnesses reached in Iran and official statements carried on Iranian media.
A senior cleric on Friday urged Iran’s protest leaders to be punished “without mercy” and said some should face execution — harsh calls that signal a nasty new turn in the regime’s crackdown on demonstrators two weeks after its disputed election.
Hard-liners have ordered long sentences and hangings before, and some fear those awaiting trial by a judiciary whose verdicts reflect the will of supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei could face the most severe punishments the Islamic system can dish out.
“Anyone who takes up arms to fight with the people, they are worthy of execution,” Ayatollah Ahmed Khatami, a ranking cleric, said in a nationally broadcast sermon at Tehran University.
Khatami said those who disturbed the peace and destroyed public property were “at war with God” and should be “dealt with without mercy.”
His call for merciless retribution for those who stirred up Iran’s largest wave of dissent since the 1979 Islamic Revolution came as Mir Hossein Mousavi, the nation’s increasingly isolated opposition leader, has been under heavy pressure to give up his fight and slipped even further from view.
Mousavi said he would seek official permission for any future rallies, effectively ending his role in street protests organized by supporters who insist he — not hard-line incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — won the June 12 election. And an aide said Mousavi’s Web site, his primary means of staying in touch with supporters, was taken down by unknown hackers.
Mousavi alleges he was robbed of victory through widespread and systematic fraud. The regime rejects the claim, refusing to consider new balloting, and on Friday, the Guardian Council — Iran’s top electoral body — proclaimed the vote the “healthiest” held since the revolution.
Since the election, opposition protesters repeatedly have clashed with security forces who arrested hundreds of people, including journalists, academics and university students. At least 17 people have been killed, in addition to eight members of the pro-government Basij militia, officials have said.
The demonstrations petered out this week under an ever-intensifying crackdown. Mousavi, meanwhile, has sent mixed signals to supporters, asking them not to break the law while pledging not to drop his challenge.
Amnesty International called the prospect of quick trials and capital punishment for some detainees “a very worrying development.” It said Iran was the world’s No. 2 executioner after China last year, with at least 346 known instances of people put to death. The group also called on the regime to release dozens of detained journalists it said faced possible torture.
Khatami’s call for harsh penalties and even death for those who are found to have defied the Islamic system “is certainly an attempt to instill fear in people,” said Ann Harrison, an Iran researcher at Amnesty.