Two journalists stand trial in Iran for stories that sparked protest movement

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Two female Iranian journalists went on trial behind closed doors this week for their reporting on the death of Mahsa Amini, which sparked a popular uprising.

The Kurdish woman, 22, died in custody of Iran’s “morality police” last year after she was detained for an alleged violation of the country’s conservative dress code for women.

Elahe Mohammadi, a reporter with Ham-Mihan newspaper, and Niloofar Hamedi, of Shargh newspaper, brought early attention to the story, which set off widespread protests and a broader movement to end clerical rule.

The journalists, who have spent months in detentions, stand accused of “colluding with hostile powers” — a charge they deny, according to their families, and which could carry a long sentence or the death penalty. The government has not presented any evidence publicly backing up the allegations.

Iran executes three men connected to anti-government protests

Advocates and rights groups say the reporters have little hope of a fair trial or even basic due process under Iran’s notoriously opaque and politicized judicial system. Thousands of demonstrators remain jailed, and at least seven have been executed, in connection to the protest movement.

Mohammadi’s trial opened Monday in Branch 15 of Iran’s Revolutionary Court, a parallel judicial system tasked with protecting the Islamic Republic. Hamedi’s trial began Tuesday in the same court overseen by Abulqasem Salavati, known as Iran’s “hanging judge” for the frequency of his harsh rulings.

The courts have not said when a ruling will be issued.

“We have already seen a rash of unfair trials after thousands of protesters, including journalists, were arbitrarily detained as part of the Islamic Republic’s crackdown,” said Nassim Papayianni, senior campaigner for the Iran team at Amnesty International, a leading human rights organization. “These trials have started amid a horrific spike in executions and other serious violations in Iran.”

Papayianni said both women have been held for days in solitary confinement and subject to repeated interrogations without access to a lawyer. Ahead of the trials, their lawyers could not access the case files against them, as is typical in the Revolutionary Court, she said.

Hamedi’s husband, Mohammad Hossein Ajorlou, said on Twitter on Tuesday that she “denied all the charges against her and emphasized that she had performed her duty as a journalist based on the law.” The trial, he said, “ended in less than two hours while her lawyers did not get a chance to defend her.”

Shahabeddin Mirlohi, Mohammadi’s attorney, recounted the same in comments to Ham-Mihan, a pro-reform news outlet. His comments appear to have elicited criticism from the judiciary’s Mizan News Agency, which accused Mohammadi’s attorney of making an “illegal” and “false statement” regarding time allotted for a defense.

Families of both women were denied entry to their trials, according to Ajorlou and Mirlohi. Instead, friends and family waited outside the courthouse for a glimpse through the tinted windows of the vans transporting them, their newspapers reported.

The “woman, life, freedom” protest movement began in mid-September after the death of Amini on Sept. 16. She had been detained her three days earlier in Tehran for alleged violations of the mandatory dress code, which includes a hijab requirement for women. Amini was hospitalized for injuries sustained in custody. Her family later said she was beaten to death.

As news spread of Amini’s condition, Hamedi went to the hospital to report and snapped a photo of Amini’s family in a somber embrace. It went viral. After Amini died, Mohammadi traveled to the young woman’s hometown of Saqez, in Iran’s Kurdistan province. She reported from Amini’s funeral, which turned into a protest after police tried to disperse it in a violent crackdown.

Both women were arrested at the end of September. In November, the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and the intelligence agency of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard, the guardians of Iran’s security state, accused the U.S. CIA of orchestrating Hamedi and Mohammadi’s reporting and helping to plan the nationwide, leaderless unrest.

Protesters arrested in Iran face a justice system stacked against them

For months, thousands of Iranians took to the streets daily to denounce state repression and demand the end of theocratic rule, set up after the 1979 revolution. Iranian authorities responded with an increasingly violent crackdown, killing more than 500 protesters and bystanders and arresting some 20,000 others, according to HRANA, a Virginia-based activist news agency focused on Iran. By the winter, demonstrations died down; in February, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, issued amnesty, at least temporarily, for thousands of protesters.

But key activists and public figures, such as Hamedi and Mohammadi, remain detained and at risk of the death penalty. In the latest escalation, on May 19, Iran executed three men connected to the anti-government protests, after state media aired alleged confessions that rights groups said were probably coerced under torture. At least seven more men connected to the protests remain on death row, according to HRANA.

“We believe this is part of the Iranian authorities’ campaign to torment and terrorize the Iranian population inside Iran to bring an end to the protests,” said Papayianni, the Amnesty campaigner.

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