Human rights groups on Thursday condemned the execution of at least 20 Kurdish activists in Iran who had been charged with links to terrorism.
A statement by the Iranian intelligence ministry confirmed the Wednesday executions, saying the convicts were part of a terrorist cell that was responsible for armed attacks in Iran’s western provinces.
"These people had committed murder... killed women and children, caused destruction and acted against the security, and killed Sunni religious leaders in some Kurdish regions," Mohammad Javad Montazeri, Iran’s top prosecutor, told IRIB TV, a state-run channel.
The Iranian government said that the men had ties to foreign Islamist groups, an apparent reference to Islamic State, and that they were plotting to carry out attacks inside Iran. But rights activists said the government’s accusations were baseless.
“Some of them had been in prison even before Daesh [Islamic State] or other Sunni extremist groups appeared in the region,” said an attorney from Tehran who requested anonymity.
Shahram Ahmadi, 29, a Kurdish activist from Sanandaj, was among those who were hanged. He was reportedly arrested for distributing leaflets that demanded rights for the Sunni minority in Iran.
Ahmadi’s sister told VOA the family recently received a call from an Iranian court, asking that the relatives give him a “farewell visit” in prison.
“When we went to Tehran, we received another call saying that only [Shahram’s] dad must show up,” she said. “But when we got [to the prison], we received the body of our executed brother.”
Scaring the public
Rights activists in Iran say the government is using IS as an excuse to instill fear in the public.
Iranian national television recently aired a documentary featuring interviews with alleged IS agents who had been arrested by Iranian intelligence forces. The men pictured in the report confessed to infiltrating Iran with the aim of destabilizing the country.
“The broadcast of this so-called documentary was a sign that a string of executions is under way,” said Mahmoud Amiri Moghaddam, a spokesperson for Iran Human Rights, a Norway-based group that monitors Iran’s executions. “These sorts of tactics are used to prepare the public for upcoming actions.”
Ethnic Kurds make up nearly 9 percent of Iran’s 80 million people. They are largely Sunni Muslims in a country ruled by Shi'ite Muslims.
“Kurds in Iran are persecuted twice — first because they are Kurds, and second because they are Sunnis,” said Azad Moradian, spokesman for the Los Angeles-based Kurdish American Committee for Democracy and Human Rights in Iran.
Kurds in Iran have long desired more autonomy from Tehran's firm grip, and they have been calling for cultural and political rights. Since mid-June, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards have been clashing with Kurds in some areas along the Iran-Iraq border.
Support for Kurds alleged
Tehran has accused foreign powers, Saudi Arabia in particular, of backing Kurdish rebels against Iranian forces. But Kurdish groups say this is merely a pretext for the government to justify its suppression of Kurds.
Saudi Arabia is a traditional rival of Iran in the region. In Syria, Iran has been a major backer of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, while Saudis have been supporting anti-government Syrian rebels.
“These [executions] have something to do with Iran’s regional policy,” said Moradian. “Iran is afraid of a Saudi influence in Sunni Kurds. And so these executions could be a message for Saudi Arabia.”
Rights groups have long criticized Iran for hangings and executions of people that the regime says are criminals. Amnesty International said 977 people were executed in 2015, mostly for drug-related offenses.