Ann Arbor (Informed Comment) – The official website of Iran’s “August Leader” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei announced Sunday that “tens of thousands” (دهها هزار)
of political prisoners arrested for participating in the nationwide protests since the middle of September last fall will be granted amnesty or have their sentences much reduced. He said this move came at the suggestion of Chief Justice Gholamhossein Mohseni Ejei.
The amnesty is in honor of the 44th anniversary of the Islamic Republic’s founding, as well as in commemoration of the birthday of Imam Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad, whom Shiites hold to have been his rightful successor.
It was the first time that the Iranian authorities have admitted to holding tens of thousands of political prisoners. Some 500 persons were shot dead by government security forces in the course of last fall’s demonstrations, and most of those detained were simply protesting peacefully, which should not have been the basis for an arrest in the first place.
Indeed, in some ways the announcement is a humiliation for the government, which came to power on the backs of revolutionaries against the autocracy of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. One of the charges against the shah was that he held prisoners of conscience in his jails. In 1977, after the shah had begun his own amnesty program and released many political prisoners, there were still 3,000 prisoners of conscience in his jails, according to the International Red Cross. Even at the height of his repression, he did not hold “tens of thousands” of prisoners of conscience.
Apparently the families of the arrestees, many of them minors, have been putting heavy pressure on the government to release their daughters and sons. Iran is still a republic of cousins, so that each of those arrested probably has a clan support group of aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters, and first and second cousins totaling a hundred people, not to mention another 200 friends. If 20,000 were arrested, as some human rights activists have suggested, that would be potentially as many as 6 million disgruntled constituents. That number does not even count those generally sympathetic to the protesters on principle. The government’s base is apparently only about 15% of the population, about 13 million people, so the angry relatives and friends of those detained probably come to nearly half the entire number of firm supporters of the state. Even for a dictatorship, that is dangerous math.
Since so many of the protest leaders were young women in their teens or early twenties, for the government to hold thousands of them in a prison system where they can be raped and disgraced affects the honor of tens of thousands of families, who feel strongly about such matters.
Moreover, the government’s high officials clearly believe that they have weathered this round of protests, and so they can afford to be magnanimous.
Ejei suggested that the amnesty be extended to those prisoners who are not suspected of having committed espionage on behalf of a foreign power, or of having direct contact with foreign intelligence field officers. Moreover, they must not be guilty of premeditated murder, battery, arson, destruction of government property, or injury to domestic or international security.
Women with child-rearing responsibilities, the elderly, the chronically ill, and the indigent unable to pay fines can also petition for amnesty.
Smugglers, drug and alcohol dealers, gun runners, pimps, and stick-up men and burglars are not eligible for the amnesty.
BBC Monitoring draws attention to the caution of Ejei’s deputy, Sadeq Rahimi, who said that the pardons would only be extended to those prisoners who wrote out an apology for their actions. For the first time, even those detainees who have not yet been tried could be pardoned.
It remains to be seen how many of the imprisoned protesters will be willing to write out such apologies, and if a substantial number refuse to do so the government will remain stuck with substantial numbers of prisoners of conscience, seen by many Iranians as martyrs. That isn’t an enviable position for the government to be in.
A similar amnesty was offered, BBC Monitoring notes, after the 2019 protests against the high cost of energy.