When Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini hijacked the Iranian revolution in 1979 and declared himself Supreme Leader of the newly established Islamic Republic of Iran, the world heaved a sigh of relief. It was commonly felt that this man of deep religious faith would foster a future of peace and stability for the Iranian people. Rarely has a profile proved to be so mistaken. Khomeini, as the founding father of fundamentalist Islam, was an elderly, psychotic fanatic, determined to purge anyone who stood in his way or rejected his new credo of velayat-e faqih or guardianship of the Islamic jurist. 

The implementation of a grossly distorted version of Sharia law, under the diktat of the misogynist mullahs, soon saw the role of women reduced to that of second-class citizens, while Iran’s judicial system became one of the most brutal in the world. The Iranian regime executes more people per capita than any other country. It carries out more total executions than any nation but China, whose population is over 17 times greater than that of Iran’s. Tehran continues to target political dissidents and ethnic, religious, and sexual minorities for execution. Capital punishment can be—and often is—carried out against juvenile offenders and for nonviolent crimes.

In 1988, Khomeini issued a fatwa against the main democratic opposition movement, the People’s Mojahedin of Iran/ Mojahedin-e Khalq (PMOI or MEK), calling for their summary execution. More than 30,000 political prisoners, mostly supporters or members of the PMOI/MEK were sent to the gallows in the second half of 1988, in a crime against humanity that must surely rank as one of the most horrific of the late twentieth century. The mass executions, in jails across Iran, were overseen by ‘Death Commissions’ comprising four senior officials appointed by the Supreme Leader. One of the most notorious judges on the death commissions was Ebrahim Raisi, now the current Iranian president, known as ‘The Butcher of Tehran’ for his role as a hanging judge. According to witness statements, Raisi did not even show mercy to prisoners suffering from epilepsy and paralysis. The 1988 massacre is now the subject of a UN investigation.

The current Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has faithfully followed the homicidal example set by his predecessor, appointing Raisi as the president to consolidate power within his own faction and unify his regime against the growing waves of nationwide unrest. During Raisi’s tenure, the rate of executions has increased exponentially in tandem with further repression against ordinary citizens. Moreover, the regime has resorted to carrying out brutal punishments in public in the hope of causing widespread fear, thus preventing future protests. On July 27 and August 1, 2022, the regime amputated the hands of two persons charged with theft. The theocratic regime has excelled in the past four decades in barbaric acts such as amputation of hands and feet, gouging eyes, stoning people to death, throwing prisoners off cliffs, and other brutal punishments. According to contemporary newspaper reports, Ebrahim Raisi was the prosecutor of Iran’s ancient capital Hamedan in the 1980s, when he sentenced a prisoner to be thrown off a cliff. Such sentences were often meted out to men accused of homosexuality.

The cruelty and inhumanity of Iran’s judicial system goes well beyond executions, however. Individuals may be arrested and indefinitely detained without charge or on trumped-up offenses; subject to degrading treatment, including torture, in order to extract confessions; denied rights such as access to legal counsel and a fair and speedy trial; and sentenced to other barbaric penalties such as amputation, blinding, and flogging. According to a December 2020 report by Amnesty International, “from 1 January 2000 to 1 November 2020, the Iranian authorities sentenced at least 264 men to amputation and amputated the fingers of at least 129 men.” The regime uses a guillotine machine to cut off the fingers of people who have been charged with theft. 

Those accused or convicted of perpetrating crimes are incarcerated in overcrowded prisons where they may be subject to torture, rape, and other atrocities. Iran’s densely populated and dirty penitentiaries are also breeding grounds for the coronavirus and other illnesses, and prisoners are often denied necessary medical care, personal protective equipment, and disinfectant. Iran executes the majority of convicts sentenced to death by hanging within these prisons. The regime, however, also regularly carries out executions in public. In many of these cases, the victim is publicly hanged from a construction crane, an especially slow and painful execution method.

The atrocities of the Iranian regime against women have become so disgraceful that even the regime’s own media and analysts are becoming worried about their consequences. Following the barbaric flogging earlier this month of Roya Heshmati, 33, on charges of violating the regime’s fundamentalist hijab rules, the state-run Setareye Sobh Daily, on January 13, ran an article titled, “Harsh punishments will cause discontent,” in which it warned about the social consequences of punishments such as flogging and wrote, “Flogging is a violent punishment and today, society will not tolerate it.” On the same day, the state-run Etemad daily wrote, “[Such punishments] do more harm than good for the punished and society.”

Khamenei and his regime know that it is only a matter of time before another nationwide insurrection erupts. The embers of that fire can already be seen in every corner of the country as rebellious young people and Resistance Units of the PMOI/MEK target regime buildings, and angry protesters take to streets to make their voices heard. No amount of violence and barbarism will save the regime from its fate, which is their inevitable overthrow at the hands of the Iranian people. 

Meanwhile, the UK, EU, US and UN must take urgent action to save the lives of thousands of prisoners, especially political prisoners facing execution in Iran. The mullahs’ regime must face international condemnation and its leaders, especially Khamenei and Raisi should be held accountable for 45 years of crimes against humanity and human rights abuse.