Mohammed Ghobadlou; Story of a State Murder

Mohammed Ghobadlou, a 24-year-old Iranian, faced execution for his involvement in the protests following the death of Mahsa/Jina Amini in 2022. Convicted of murder and Moharebeh — a term meaning “Waging War Against God” — he received a capital sentence. The charges stated that in the city of Parand, Ghobadlou drove a vehicle into a group of Iranian special police units, resulting in the death of Farid Karampour Hassanvand and injuries to five other officers.

As the Iranian community reeled from the political ramifications of the Amini protests, Mohammed Ghobadlou, along with Mohammad Boroughani, another protester facing the death penalty, became prominent symbols of the public’s resistance to the government’s harsh response. On January 9, 2023, numerous demonstrators assembled outside the Rajai-shahr Prison in Karaj, where Ghobadlou and Boroughani were thought to be held in solitary confinement in anticipation of their executions. During this demonstration, Ghobadlou’s mother addressed the crowd, whose members offered her their support and sympathy.

While Mohammad Boroughani’s execution was postponed on January 11, 2023, after extensive judicial proceedings spanning 487 days, Mohammed Ghobadlou’s execution was, unfortunately, rescheduled and subsequently carried out on January 23, 2024.

Mohammad Ghobadlou is the ninth person who was arrested during last year’s protests and then executed; Before him, Mohsen Shekari, Majidreza Rahnavard, Mohammad Mehdi Karami, Mohammad Hosseini, Saleh Mirhashemi, Saeed Yaqoubi, Majid Kazemi and Milad Zahravand were executed.

Protests and police violence

Civil disobedience and demonstrations against the Iranian government, prompted by the death of Mahsa/Jina Amini while in police custody, commenced on September 16, 2022, and extended into the following year. By the spring of 2023, reports suggested that these manifestations had significantly subsided. Nonetheless, as of September 2023, the power structure within the Islamic Republic was reported to remain firmly in place. The scale and intensity of these protests were unprecedented, representing a historic challenge to the Islamic regime leadership, marking them as the most extensive and significant uprising since the 1979 Revolution.

The 2022 wave of demonstrations, although not as deadly as the events witnessed in 2019 which culminated in over 1,500 deaths, still represents significant societal unrest. These protests have engaged a broad array of social groups and have spread through educational establishments, urban centers and beyond.

Before the mass pardons issued in February 2023, approximately 19,262 protesters were reported to have been arrested across more than 134 cities and towns, with this number including detentions at 132 academic institutions.

It is confirmed that at least 551 people have lost their lives as of September 15, 2023, as stated by the organization Iran Human Rights. Amongst them were women and children, with at least 68 being under the age of 18. Official death certificates, as documented by Human Rights Activists in Iran, reveal that a number of these deaths were due to live ammunition. Iran Human Rights, which operates from Norway, has highlighted the challenges of obtaining reliable and current data due to internet shutdowns within the country.

Outrage and media attention have focused on several high-profile deaths of female protesters, including those of Nika Shakarami, Hadis Najafi, and Sarina Esmailzadeh. There are accusations directed at Iranian authorities alleging that they have obscured the reality surrounding protester fatalities. Families of the deceased have reported being coerced by the authorities, and there have been claims of official records falsely reporting the causes of death as suicides or vehicular accidents.

The harsh crackdown on demonstrators extended to students as well (footage on the left).
This was the general situation in the whole country.

Detainment of Mohammed Ghobadlou

On the 29th of October, 2022, a critical legal proceeding took place involving the defendant Ghobadlou, which was presided over by the notorious judge Abolqasem Salavati. In what was considered a controversial move, the court dismissed Ghobadlou’s chosen legal representation, instead appointing an attorney from the Islamic Republic’s judicial counseling center. This action provoked a vehement dispute from Ghobadlou’s personal lawyer.

The lawyer appointed to Ghobadlou had been attempting to fulfill his role without any significant access to vital legal documents pertaining to the case. For the entirety of Ghobadlou’s detention leading up to the trial, his attorney was not granted the opportunity to review any photographic evidence, consult records of forensic medicine, or investigate other standard entries that typically accompany accident reports. This lack of documentation access hindered the ability to prepare a comprehensive defense and called into question the fairness of the judicial process.

The mother of Mohammed Ghobadlou, on November 1, 2022, announced in a video message on social media the death sentence of her son in the only session of the court held without the presence of lawyers and family. Mohammad’s mother said in her message that her 22-year-old son was tried in a session without the presence of his family and lawyer and “has been sentenced to death and they want to execute him immediately”.

Ghobadlou’s lawyer announced on 26 August 2023 that following the confirmation of 50 psychiatrists in Iran regarding the necessity of a more thorough reexamination of Ghobadlou’s case due to his mental illness, Branch 1 of the Supreme Court had annulled the death sentence and would refer the case to one of the branches of the Criminal Court 1 of Tehran.

The judiciary had claimed that Mohammed “by running over officers with a car” in the city of Robat-Karim, was responsible for “the murder of an officer named Vahid Karampour-Hasanvand and injuring five other police officers”.

This was while Mohammad’s lawyer, while criticizing the first “public” court session without the presence of lawyers and family, published two video from the Police Martyrs Archive running by the Iranian Police Department and another video from the official funeral speech of the deceased officer, in addition to some medical documents related to the officer, which contradicted the narrative of the murder in court case.

In the official mourning ceremony, one of the authorities say “the reason for holding the ceremony at this location is that martyr Vahid was surrounded here alone by rioters and killed by them.”

The footage released by the Police Martyrs Archive (right), captures a distressing scene where a police officer is seen grounded and under assault by demonstrators. The officer has been identified by the archive as Vahid Karampour-Hassanvand.

Mohammad’s legal representative raised concerns regarding the restrictive practice where only attorneys sanctioned by the Judiciary can present cases in court, questioning the rationale behind the defendant’s lawyers’ exclusion from providing a defense. This leads to the question: ought a public defender to be assigned to a defendant who is already represented by legal counsel?

Mohammad’s lawyer also published a picture of a judicial letter emphasizing “urgent attention” and pursuit for “speeding up the issuance of the primary and appeal verdicts” in this case, writing that perhaps the reason for all this haste in a trial without a lawyer “is this correspondence that has determined the task from the beginning to the end of the case” and “is as if the result of the preliminary investigations of the prosecutor’s office is predetermined”.

On December 16, 2022, Amnesty International warned in a statement that following the “arbitrary execution” of Mohsen Shekari and Majidreza Rahnavard, which occurred after “show trials”, at least 26 other detainees of the protests are at risk of execution. Of these, “death sentences for 11 individuals” have been issued, and 15 others are awaiting or undergoing trial on similar charges.

Amnesty International’s warning mentioned Mohammad Ghobadlou, Mohammad Boroghani, and Saman Yasin (Seyyedi), who were tried in a group trial at the Tehran Revolutionary Court, as three of the protesters now at risk of execution following the issuance of death sentences by the Revolutionary Court.

Two weeks later, on December 24, 2022, just hours after the Supreme Court announced it had accepted Mohammed Ghobadlou’s appeal, this news was “corrected” by state media.

On the morning of December 24, the Public Relations of the Supreme Court had announced that following Mohammad Ghobadlou’s appeal, his case had been referred to a parallel branch, but hours later, the Tasnim, an News Agency running by IRGC, quoting the Public Relations of the Supreme Court, “corrected” the news and wrote that the Supreme Court had rejected Mohammad Ghobadlou’s appeal.

The day after, Amir Raeesian, the lawyer of Mohammad Ghobadlou, said: “The news of accepting Ghobadlou’s appeal had a legal argument, so the issue cannot be a mistake in news publication. For the court’s opinion about a case to be announced, the news goes through several stages of review. Besides, not only the Supreme Court’s information website but also Mizan, the official news agency of the judiciary, had published the news of accepting Ghobadlou’s appeal.”

Raeesian also emphasized that “in the original news” published by the Public Relations of the Supreme Court and the judiciary’s news agency, “the court’s reasoning for accepting Ghobadlou’s appeal was explained, and legal clauses were mentioned… But after a few hours, namely when the working hours of the court had ended and it was no longer possible to have any access to judges, a correction was published announcing that the appeal had been rejected and the primary court’s verdict declaring Mohammad Ghobadlou a ‘Mohareb’ (Enemy of God) had been confirmed.”

The most painful image in the struggle against execution is the children whose fathers are at risk of execution for selling or possessing a few grams of drugs. Many of these children witness the tears, pleas, slogans, and stress and anxiety of their families. These are the same children who are grappling with absolute poverty and embed these traumatic experiences in their young minds and hearts. The increase in execution rates in Iran has sparked a wave of protests.
Image: The protest of the families of those sentenced to death.

Protests Against Execution Sentences

On May 27, 2023, several families seeking justice issued a statement calling for immediate international action to stop the wave of executions in Iran and urged all human rights organizations and bodies around the world to do everything possible to stop the government-led killings, the wave of executions, and “to cancel the execution orders” of the protesters.

By that time, from December 8, 2022, to May 19, 2023, the Islamic Republic had executed at least seven detained protesters without their access to a chosen lawyer and a fair trial.

On May 29, 2023, six prominent Iranian human rights lawyers and legal scholars wrote a letter to António Guterres, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, warning about the alarming increase in executions in Iran, especially the significant rise in this form of punishment by the Islamic Republic government following the nationwide “Women, Life, Freedom” protests.

The signatories of the letter, pointing to the “misuse” by governments like the Islamic Republic of the “principle of state sovereignty” to carry out “widespread executions without concern of accountability to the international community,” stated that it is due to the “ineffectiveness of current laws and regulations” that the international community “cannot do anything more effective than expressing condemnation and disgust at these inhumane actions.”

Human rights organizations report that at least 582 people were executed in Iran in 2022. The statistics showed that more than half of these execution orders, carried out in response to the “Women, Life, Freedom” protests during the last quarter of 2022 (from September to December 2022), represented an increase of nearly 75% compared to the 2021 figures.

A significant number of demonstrators have been incarcerated due to the upheaval sparked by Mahsa Amini’s demise, with a worrying portion facing grave accusations like Moharebeh (Waging War Against God,) or Mofsed-e-filarz, known as “Corruption on Earth.” In the context of Iran’s legal system, these charges can lead to capital punishment.

Mohammad and his parents in one of the court sessions. Photo by Iranian media.

Torture and confession

According to a conflicting report by the police department, “on September 22, 2022, while a group of police were controlling rioters in the city of Parand, an “Mohammad Ghobadlou” deliberately drove a car at high speed with the intention of killing the officers on duty. He ran over six officers who were on motorcycles, resulting in all six sustaining injuries and fractures to arms and legs. One of the officers, named “Vahid Karampour-Hassanvand,” died due to the severity of his injuries.

During the interrogation, officers told Mohammad under torture and threat to confess that he had caused a disturbance under the influence of social networks so that they would forgive him! It’s clear that these words are not his own. They are so unlike his own words that the entire dialogue that takes place is remarkable. Government-owned media have said that Ghobadlou initially stated in interrogations that if another ten police officers come, he would run them over again.

Mohammad Ghobadlou later realized that he should not mention the words protest or revolution in response to the question, “Why were you there?” Later He respond it to the judge, “Sir, under the influence of social networks, we went to cause a disturbance.” The judge asks, “Had you told your father that you were going there, meaning your decision was not spontaneous?” Ghobadlou replies, “Yes, I told my father I’m going to cause a little disturbance and then come back!”

“We went to the site of the disturbance, then I went to cause a disturbance. Suddenly, I drove the car over the Basij members, one of them hit the windshield of the car, then everything went black before my eyes, I didn’t understand. Believe me, I had only gone to cause a disturbance!”

This means that the regime are dealing with a generation that doesn’t know, understand, or value even the emphases of their own government. The judge knows that for 43 years, they have been calling the legitimate protests of the people sedition or disturbance! This young man, accused of running over Basij members, doesn’t even know what the honors of this government are. They are so worthless to him. He says, “We went, sir, to cause a little disturbance,” as if he’s saying, “We went to have some ice cream!”

Observers and activist are ringing alarm bells about the Islamic regime’s apparent resolution to enforce collective capital penalties. They indicate that the authorities intentionally keep the specifics of execution cases ambiguous, aiming to muddle the local and global comprehension and response until executions are carried out. Insightful and immediate global intervention could yet avert a grave humanitarian crisis.

Numerous of these judicial proceedings are conducted within the confines of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Courts, which have garnered widespread condemnation for the lack of transparency, closed-door sessions, and often, the refusal to allow the defendants to examine the evidence presented against them.

Ghobadlou’s family and other protesters, taking stand against the death sentence.

The execution of Mohammed Ghobadlou profoundly impacted Iranian society, revealing a stark contrast between public expectation and governmental action. There was an unspoken belief among the populace that a regime dependent on electoral legitimacy would momentarily shed its draconian image and adopt a more benevolent facade, particularly during election periods. Nevertheless, the Islamic Republic has blatantly intensified its regime of capital punishment. The resurgence of executions signals the government’s despair with the electoral system, having manipulated it to its advantage previously.

Now, instead of relying on the pretense of democracy, the state seeks to fortify its position through fear, as evidenced by bolstering the resources of the Basij militia. This escalation of executions is indicative of an attempt to portray a display of unyielding authority—a facade of military dominance both within the region and over citizens, whom it treats as hostages under its oppressive rule.

Protest against execution of Mohammad’s death sentence (right) and protest of a citizen in Tehran against his execution. The old man says that “he does not know who is Muhammad Ghobadlou, but the youths should not be executed and he will no longer pray by morning Adhan (the call to prayer) because they (the regime) execute the youths with the morning Adhan.”

Social reactions

With the execution of Muhammad Ghobadlou, in the first act of protest, 61 female prisoners in Evin announced that they will go on a hunger strike to protest the process of executions in Iran and worry about more executions.

In such a situation, social and labor organizations and activists are once again moving towards the absolute abolition of the death penalty by publishing statements.

112 teacher and worker union activists, along with a group of civil activists, have announced in a statement that they support the protests against the execution sentences in Iran started hunger strike on Friday, January 26.”

A part of the statement reads: “We, a group of activist educators and worker activists, in protest against the improper practices of the government and widespread injustice, and in solidarity with the pioneering women imprisoned in jail and civil and political activists who went on a hunger strike on Thursday, the 26th of January, will go on a hunger strike today, Friday.”

The signatories of this statement, referring to their “deep belief” in the slogan “No to Execution” as defined by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, believe: “Many innocent people have been victimized by execution so far, for which there is no way back.”

Previously, retired government employees and social security recipients in Kermanshah, in their joint gathering held on January 23, also protested against the executions and “killing of life”, referencing the upcoming parliamentary elections and the “rule of oppression, violence, and poverty” over Iran.

Over 300 feminist activists, while expressing solidarity with the families of political prisoners threatened by the imminent execution, demanded the unconditional abolition of all death sentences. They declared the death penalty unjust in any circumstances and stated, “In the demand for the abolition of the death penalty, we make no distinction between prisoners of ‘common crimes’ and ‘political’ prisoners, and we unanimously say: never execution, for anyone.”

In Zahedan, after the death of Mahsa/Jina Amini, there has been a consistent pattern of demonstrations occurring every Friday following the weekly prayers. Central to the demands of the protesters is the call for the cessation of capital punishment. Their rallying cry, displayed on banners, is a firm rejection of the current regime, with explicit opposition to politically motivated executions, summarizing their stance succinctly: “No to the Islamic Republic. No to retributive executions.”

In issuing the death penalty, there is never any justice involved. Neither the judicial system of the Islamic Republic nor any other judiciary has the authority to decide about life, the codeword of our struggle. However, we cannot overlook how the death sentences of the oppressed are issued hastily and carelessly, then carried out. We cannot ignore the fact that most of those currently facing the threat of execution belong to the lower classes, oppressed nationalities, immigrant populations, and child brides who neither have access to a lawyer nor the most basic rights of a defendant during the legal process.

A look at the horrifying statistics of executions in Kurdistan, Baluchistan, Kazakhstan, and other marginalized geographies like Alborz Province, or at the class background of the victims of this sentence in recent years, shows how the judicial system targets, without cost, those who have been deprived of any means of resistance against judicial violence, including access to a lawyer or legal information. These are people who also lack the social, cultural, and media capital of the upper class and have already been subjected to multi-layered structural violence, whose names we don’t even know. In demanding the abolition of the death penalty, we make no distinction between prisoners of “common crimes” and “political” prisoners, and we unanimously say: never execution, for anyone.

Capital punishment—the government’s sugar-coated term for cold-blooded murder. When a person snuffs out their neighbor, we call it for what it is: murder, plain and simple. But let the state drop the guillotine, hanging or fire up the electric chair, and suddenly it’s “capital punishment,” as if a fancy label could scrub the blood off their hands.

Let’s cut the euphemisms. This isn’t about justice; it’s about state-sanctioned homicide, playing God with the gall to schedule death as if it’s just another calendar event. And society? Society stands by, complicit, cloaked in the facade of legality and righteousness as the executioner’s hand is stayed by nothing but the clock.

Demanding an end to this barbarity isn’t just opposition; it’s a cry for civilization. Capital punishment stands as the pinnacle of hypocrisy—a government, which should protect life, instead orchestrates its premeditated end, declaratively and without a flicker of remorse. How is this not the most sinister, the most egregious act of murder? When wrapped in the flag and banged by the judge’s gavel, does taking a life suddenly morph into some twisted notion of public service?

We’re knee-deep in the politics of death, and it’s about time to say enough is enough.

My journey in creating this space was deeply inspired by James Baldwin’s powerful work, “The Fire Next Time”. Like Baldwin, who eloquently addressed themes of identity, race, and the human condition, this blog aims to be a beacon for open, honest, and sometimes uncomfortable discussions on similar issues.

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