Iran’s execution of journalist Ruhollah Zam, briefly explained

Iranian journalist Ruhollah Zam, whose reporting helped spur large anti-government protests, was executed by Iran on Saturday morning, according to reports by state media.

Zam, 47, was found guilty of “corruption on earth” and sentenced to death in June 2020. The sentence was upheld by Iran’s Supreme Court on Tuesday this week, shortly before his execution.

The vague charge of “corruption on earth” is often used “in cases involving espionage or attempts to overthrow Iran’s government,” Al Jazeera reported Saturday.

Zam ran the site Amad News and coordinated a Telegram channel, both of which helped spread information during a wave of anti-regime protests that shook Iran in 2017 and 2018. He was living abroad in Paris at the time, but returned to the Middle East in 2019 and was arrested in Iraq by members of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

It’s unclear exactly why Zam returned to the region, but Karim Sadjadpour, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, tweeted Saturday that Zam was “reportedly lured to Iraq (from France), kidnapped, taken back to Iran, and tortured into confession. He leaves behind a wife and two daughters.”

Zam’s execution has drawn international condemnation.

The international human rights group Amnesty International argued Zam’s conviction stemmed from a “grossly unfair trial” and his execution — by hanging — was rushed following the Supreme Court ruling in a “reprehensible bid to avoid an international campaign to save his life.”

“With the execution of Roohollah Zam, Iranian authorities join the company of criminal gangs and violent extremists who silence journalists by murdering them,” Committee to Protect Journalists program coordinator Sherif Mansour said in a statement Saturday. “This is a monstrous and shameful act, and one which the international community must not let pass unnoticed.”

It’s been a tumultuous three years in Iran

Zam primarily drew the ire of the Iranian regime for his role in a spate of protests almost three years ago. According to the CPJ, he used Amad News and Telegram to spread “embarrassing information about Iranian officials and the timings and locations of protests.”

As Vox’s Zack Beauchamp explained in 2018 when the protests were at their height, the demonstrations were sparked by outrage over the price of basic goods — specifically, eggs — but quickly morphed into something far larger, coming to encompass a wide range of frustrations with Iran’s government.

The protests began in Iran’s second-largest city, Mashhad, but gained momentum and reach as more and more people joined in. According to Beauchamp:

These newcomers shifted the tone of the protest blaming [Iranian President Hassan Rouhani] for the poor economic performance to blaming the Iranian government and political system more broadly.

Then the protests began spreading to dozens of towns and cities across Iran. By January 2, protests had been recorded “in nearly every province” in the country, according to the Associated Press. And these protests were targeting not just the Rouhani presidency but the Islamic Republic itself — chanting, “Death to the dictator” (referring to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei), and, “Death to the Revolutionary Guard,” referring to Iran’s security forces. They’ve also called out the government’s support for the Assad regime, questioning why Iran is spending money there when there are problems at home.

All told, tens of thousands of people across the country turned out to protest against the theocratic Iranian regime, and at least 21 people were killed by security forces.

President Donald Trump — who has consistently taken a hard line against Iran and withdrew the US from the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, better known as the Iran nuclear deal — tweeted in support of the protests at the time.

“The great Iranian people have been repressed for many years,” he said. “They are hungry for food & for freedom. Along with human rights, the wealth of Iran is being looted. TIME FOR CHANGE!”

The protests eventually subsided in January 2018, but remain among the largest the country has seen since the 2009 Green Movement, which demanded democratic reforms.

At the time, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, blamed the 2018 protests on the US, Israel, and Saudi Arabia. All three countries, as well as a handful of others, were mentioned in a filmed “apology” — very likely a coerced apology — Zam made, that was shared by Iran’s Tasnim News Agency after the journalist was arrested.

Zam fled Iran after the Green Movement protests, which were catalyzed by Iran’s June 2009 presidential election. He was granted asylum in France and lived there until his capture by Iran in 2019.

Recently, Iran has been wracked by even more protests — first over a sharp hike to fuel prices in 2019, and then following the 2020 destruction of a Ukrainian jetliner flying out of Tehran by Iranian security forces.

The country has also faced external pressures: Just last month, Iran’s top nuclear scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, was assassinated, driving regional tensions even higher. President-elect Joe Biden has indicated that he plans to reenter the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran — first negotiated by President Barack Obama while Biden was vice president — once he takes office, but Fakhrizadeh’s death has been seen by some analysts as making even a moderate rapprochement between the US and Iran more difficult to achieve.

It’s unclear what impact, if any, Zam’s execution will have on Iran’s already poor international reputation. The country is a notorious human rights abuser and executed wrestler Navid Afkari in September this year for the alleged murder of a security guard during the same 2018 protests.

“If I am executed, I want you to know that an innocent person, even though he tried and fought with all his strength to be heard, was executed,” Afkari said before his death.

The US, in the midst of its own spate of executions — some of prisoners of questionable guilt — has signaled of late that it intends to continue to apply pressure on Iran, particularly on nuclear issues. And in its statement Saturday, Amnesty International called for the global community to take action.

“The world must not stand by in silence as the Iranian authorities take their already horrific attacks on the right to life and freedom [of] expression to unprecedented levels,” the group said. “We call on the international community, including member states of the UN Human Rights Council and the EU, to take immediate action to pressure the Iranian authorities to halt their escalating use of the death penalty as a weapon of political repression.”

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