Misleading claims that Iran has sentenced 15,000 protesters to death have been shared by celebrities, the Canadian Prime Minister and tens of thousands of social media users—and continue to circulate widely online even though they’ve now been corrected in many places.
Although the majority of Iran’s parliament recently signed a letter in favour of harsh punishment (which could include the death penalty) for those involved in recent protests, this does not mean that around 15,000 people detained during the protests will be executed as a result. Sentences can only be handed out by the judiciary, a separate branch of the government.
There have been sweeping protests across Iran since the 16 September death in custody of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman who was arrested by the morality police for allegedly failing to comply with the country’s dress code for women.
Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau tweeted on 14 November: “Canada denounces the Iranian regime’s barbaric decision to impose the death penalty on nearly 15,000 protesters.”
The tweet was deleted 12 hours later with a Canadian government spokesperson stating: “The post was informed by initial reporting that was incomplete and lacked necessary context. Because of that, it has since been deleted.”
Celebrities such as the actors Sophie Turner and Viola Davis were reportedly among the thousands who’ve shared a graphic on Instagram which said: "Iran sentences 15,000 to death - as a 'hard lesson' for all rebels". Both actors have since deleted their posts—we’ve approached their representatives for comment.However while many posts featuring the graphic have since been deleted, it continues to be shared very widely, including by many Facebook users. Others have made the same claim in their own words.
While claims that 15,000 protesters have been sentenced to death are inaccurate, at least five death sentences are known to have been issued in the past week and thousands more are still in detention and have yet to face trial.
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Origin of the claims
The news of the supposed death sentences may have stemmed from a 6 November report by Iranian state media that 227 of the country’s 290 parliamentarians had added their names to a letter calling for the judiciary to consider severe punishments, which could include the death penalty, for all those involved in the protests.
The Human Rights Activists News Agency (HRANA), which is based in Norway, keeps a running tally of the numbers detained and killed during the protests. It tweeted on 11 November that 15,092 protesters had been arrested since 17 September.
That same day, Newsweek published an article, citing Iranian state media, with the headline: “Iran Protesters Refuse to Back Down as 15,000 Face Execution”. It also claimed that “the country's parliament overwhelmingly voted in favor of the death penalty for protesters”.
Similar claims were also made in other outlets, such as the Mirror which said of the 15,000 protesters “lawmakers have voted for them all to be sentenced to death”.
According to Aljazeera, the notion that all protesters had been sentenced to death may have come from the parliamentarians allegedly calling for the punishment of people engaging in “moharebeh” (waging war against God)—a crime which it said can carry the death penalty in Iran.
The initial report from Newsweek was cited by some of those sharing the claims on social media.
But it is not clear that the letter submitted to the judicary by Iranian parliamentarians necessarily demanded the death penalty for protesters. The Newsweek report said “the methods of [the punishment they wanted] were not specified”.
And it certainly did not mean that death sentences had already been passed, because sentences are imposed by the judiciary, which is a separate branch of the government, not the Iranian parliament itself.
Newsweek has since corrected its article, which now has the headline: “Iran Protesters Refuse to Back Down as First Execution Sentence Handed Down”.
The article also carried an update which states: “This article and headline were updated to remove the reference to the Iranian Parliament voting for death sentences. A majority of the parliament supported a letter to the judiciary calling for harsh punishments of protesters, which could include the death penalty.”We’ve approached Newsweek and the Mirror for comment.
Other fact checks including Reuters, the BBC and Al Jazeera, which reference a range of different sources, have also concluded that claims that 15,000 protesters have been sentenced are false or misleading.
Some protesters have been sentenced to death—and many others have yet to face trial
Although we can find no evidence to support the claim that 15,000 protesters have been sentenced to death, a number of those who have been detained by the Iranian authorities are facing execution.
The BBC reported on 16 November that five death sentences had been issued in the past week in connection with the protests.
According to a press release from the United Nations on 11 November, more than 1,000 people were indicted by the courts in Iran at the end of last month in connection to the protests and at least eight have been charged with crimes that carry the death penalty. Amnesty International suggests the Iranian authorities are “seeking the death penalty for at least 21 people”.
A daily tally maintained by HRANA says that, at the time of writing, more than 16,000 people have been detained and 381 protesters have been killed.
Iran has one of the highest rates of capital punishment in the world, having executed 6,888 people since 2010, according to the group Iran Human Rights.
Mass executions have also taken place in the past under the Iranian regime. In 1988, on the orders of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini, between 2,800 and 5,000 political prisoners were summarily and extrajudicially executed, according to Human Rights Watch.