A Wrestler's Execution, Proof That Iran's Regime Is Nervous

Under pressure both at both home and abroad, the Islamic Republic's clerical regime is using capital punishment to sow fear and force compliance.

Vigil held after the execution of Navid Afkari on Sept. 14
Vigil held after the execution of Navid Afkari on Sept. 14
Roshanak Astaraki


LONDON — Ignoring countless pleas for mercy, the Islamic Republic of Iran recently executed Navid Afkari, a former wrestler convicted of killing a state agent during street protests in 2018. The killing is part of a vicious strategy, one that targets detained opponents but whose real objective is to cow a restless population.

In late December 2017, Iranians began a new round of protests against the post-revolutionary regime in power since 1979. These were extensive, and resurfaced to a greater or less extent in July 2018 and October-November 2019.

In the meantime, the leadership is also under pressure abroad and impedes itself with dysfunctional economic policies.

In response, and presumably on the advice of some of their putative ideologues, either reformist or hardline, Iran's rulers decided to clamp down on all dissent. The state is using its depleted forces to suppress demonstrators and wants them to know: Executions are on the agenda.

To give these executions legal grounding, the judiciary has turned to one of the regime's threadbare ploys, which is to charge detainees with murder, armed insurrection or "waging war on God," whom the clerical regime claims to represent. Such charges ease the way for the "lawful" elimination of opponents.

Executions are on the agenda.

In just the past nine months, the identities of as many protesters sentenced to death have emerged. They are: Amirhossein Moradi, Mohammad Rajabi and Sa'id Tamjidi, sentenced by the Tehran Revolutionary Court; Mohammad Bastami, Mehdi Salehi, Hadi Kiani, Abbas Mohammadi and Majid Nazari, convicted by the Isfahan Revolutionary Court; and Afkari, who had been sentenced by the Shiraz Revolutionary Court in southern Iran.

In all of these cases, the dossiers are characterized by blatant juridical irregularities. Objections in the nine cases included, among other things, forced confessions, defendants rectifying confessions before the judge but outside the courtroom, an absence of solid evidence or eyewitnesses for the charges, and abuses committed against defendants while in custody.

Anti-governement protest in front of the Iranian embassy in Berlin on Sept. 12 — Photo: Annette Riedl/dpa/ZUMA

The sentence for Afkari reached more quickly than the others, and briskly carried out on Sept. 12. He was put to death in secret, without his lawyer's knowledge and without a final family visit, as the laws of the Islamic Republic allow.

There is a direct link between anxiety, on the part of a regime like Iran's, and brazen suppression. The more frightened they feel, the harder they strike. The execution of Afkari — and in the face of so much opposition — is a prime example. And the message it sends is clear: We'll kill if we have to!

Never mind that in doing so, the regime is fueling even more hatred and ire against itself. For the leadership, it doesn't matter, because in their mind, any sign of weakness may prove far too costly.

Public opinion isn't fooled anymore

The result is that no campaign or civil-society push has had any obvious impact in convincing the regime to change course. And that's because Iran's rulers think they can use an overdose of fear and despondency to create paralysis in the country.

Meanwhile, inside the country — and for the first time — many artists have openly sided with public opinion. And outside the country, outrage in Europe forced the regime to postpone a scheduled European tour by Iran's foreign minister.

On the other hand, Iran's usually bickering reformists and conservatives, sensing they must justify the system that nurtures them, came together to say Afkari had been executed for murder. They cited the law of talion (Qesas), sanctioned by religion.

The E'temad newspaper, a principal mouthpiece of the reformist camp, reproduced Afkari's forced confessions on its Twitter account and termed his execution a lawful retaliation! The conservative Tasnim news agency used similar terms.

That some reformists questioned the killing at all is only because it became public knowledge. No doubt nothing would have been said had it been a secret execution, like those of hundreds of other Iranians.

Nor is public opinion fooled anymore by the reformist label. Reacting to the protests of early 2018 and late 2019, both sides denounced demonstrators as "rioters," vandals and "sympathizers of foreign powers," and demanded a "firm response."

In 2018, a prominent reformist pressman Abbas Abdi urged the state to act firmly against protesters. Another reformist, Hamidreza Jalaypur, called them "vultures." The two factions morphed long ago into the same, illegitimate nomenklatura. Both are concerned when they hear angry crowds chant: Reformist or Conservative, It's All Over!

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Why This Sudan Coup Is Different

The military has seized control in one of Africa's largest countries, which until recently had made significant progress towards transitioning to democracy after years of strongman rule. But the people, and international community, may not be willing to turn back.

Smoke rises Monday over the Sudanese capital of Khartoum

Xinhua via ZUMA
David E. Kiwuwa

This week the head of Sudan's Sovereign Council, General Abdel Fattah El Burhan, declared the dissolution of the transitional council, which has been in place since the overthrow of former president Omar el-Bashir in 2019. He also disbanded all the structures that had been set up as part of the transitional roadmap, and decreed a state of emergency.

In essence, he staged a palace coup against the transitional authority he chaired.

The general's actions, which included the arrest of Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, are a culmination of a long period of tension between the civilian and military wings of the council.

A popular uprising may be inevitable

The tensions were punctuated by an alleged attempted coup only weeks earlier. The days leading to the palace coup were marked by street protests for and against the military. Does this mark the end of the transition as envisaged by the protest movement?

Their ability to confront counter revolutionary forces cannot be underestimated.

The popular uprising against Bashir's government was led by the Sudan Professional Association. It ushered in the political transitional union of civilians and the military establishment. The interim arrangement was to lead to a return to civilian rule.

But this cohabitation was tenuous from the start, given the oversized role of the military in the transition. Moreover, the military appeared to be reluctant to see the civilian leadership as an equal partner in shepherding through the transition.

Nevertheless, until recently there had been progress towards creating the institutional architecture for the transition. Despite the challenges and notable tension between the signatories to the accord, it was never evident that the dysfunction was so great as to herald the collapse of the transitional authority.

For now, the transition might be disrupted and in fact temporarily upended. But the lesson from Sudan is never to count the masses out of the equation. Their ability to mobilize and confront counter revolutionary forces cannot be underestimated.

Power sharing

The transitional pact itself had been anchored by eight arduously negotiated protocols. These included regional autonomy, integration of the national army, revenue sharing and repatriation of internal refugees. There was also an agreement to share out positions in national political institutions, such as the legislative and executive branch.

Progress towards these goals was at different stages of implementation. More substantive progress was expected to follow after the end of the transition. This was due in 2022 when the chair of the sovereignty council handed over to a civilian leader. This military intervention is clearly self-serving and an opportunistic power grab.

A promised to civilian rule in July 2023 through national elections.

In November, the rotational chairmanship of the transitional council was to be passed from the military to the civilian wing of the council. That meant the military would cede strong leverage to the civilians. Instead, with the coup afoot, Burhan has announced both a dissolution of the council as well as the dismissal of provincial governors. He has unilaterally promised return to civilian rule in July 2023 through national elections.

Prior to this, the military had been systematically challenging the pre-eminence of the civilian authority. It undermined them and publicly berated them for governmental failures and weaknesses. For the last few months there has been a deliberate attempt to sharply criticize the civilian council as riddled with divisions, incompetent and undermining state stability.

File photo shows Sudan's Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok in August 2020

Mohamed Khidir/Xinhua via ZUMA

Generals in suits

Since the revolution against Bashir's government, the military have fancied themselves as generals in suits. They have continued to wield enough power to almost run a parallel government in tension with the prime minister. This was evident when the military continued to have the say on security and foreign affairs.

For their part, civilian officials concentrated on rejuvenating the economy and mobilizing international support for the transitional council.

This didn't stop the military from accusing the civilian leadership of failing to resuscitate the country's ailing economy. True, the economy has continued to struggle from high inflation, low industrial output and dwindling foreign direct investment. As in all economies, conditions have been exacerbated by the effects of COVID-19.

Sudan's weakened economy is, however, not sufficient reason for the military intervention. Clearly this is merely an excuse.

Demands of the revolution

The success or failure of this coup will rest on a number of factors.

First is the ability of the military to use force. This includes potential violent confrontation with the counter-coup forces. This will dictate the capacity of the military to change the terms of the transition.

Second is whether the military can harness popular public support in the same way that the Guinean or Egyptian militaries did. This appears to be a tall order, given that popular support appears to be far less forthcoming.

The international community's appetite for military coups is wearing thin.

Third, the ability of the Sudanese masses to mobilize against military authorities cannot be overlooked. Massive nationwide street protests and defiance campaigns underpinned by underground organizational capabilities brought down governments in 1964, 1985 and 2019. They could once again present a stern test to the military.

Finally, the international community's appetite for military coups is wearing thin. The ability of the military to overcome pressure from regional and international actors to return to the status quo could be decisive, given the international support needed to prop up the crippled economy.

The Sudanese population may have been growing frustrated with its civilian authority's ability to deliver on the demands of the revolution. But it is also true that another coup to reinstate military rule is not something the protesters believe would address the challenges they were facing.

Sudan has needed and will require compromise and principled political goodwill to realise a difficult transition. This will entail setbacks but undoubtedly military intervention in whatever guise is monumentally counterproductive to the aspirations of the protest movement.


David E. Kiwuwa is Associate Professor of International Studies at University of Nottingham

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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