Iranian doctor faces execution amid outcry over protest-related convictions


Hamid Ghare-Hassanlou, 53, and his wife Farzaneh, 46, were on their way home from a cemetery near Karaj, some 30 miles west of Tehran, when they encountered traffic gridlock.

According to friends, family members and human rights defenders who tried to find out what happened, her troubles began. Following that day’s events, Ghare-Hassanlou faces a death sentence – imposed amid a spate of harsh sentences that human rights activists say were handed down without due process in an apparent attempt to quell the country’s ongoing protest movement.

The couple were part of a group leaving a ceremony on November 3 in honor of Hadis Najafi, a young woman who was killed during an anti-government protest in September. Ghare-Hassanlou and his wife got out of their car to see why traffic had stopped and entered a scene of chaos.

Videos taken at the scene, broadcast by state media and shared widely on social media showed protesters brutally beating, kicking and dragging a member of the Basij, a volunteer paramilitary force affiliated with the Revolutionary Guard, in the street lies motionless. In one video, Ghare-Hassanlou’s wife appears to be trying to tame the mob.

“Farzaneh tried to stop her, but she couldn’t,” said Hooman Hosseini Nik, a radiologist who completed his residency with Hamid in Iran and now lives in Canada.

That night, security forces searched the couple’s home, arrested them and beat them in front of their 14-year-old daughter, said Behrad Sadoughian, a former classmate of Ghare-Hassanlou in Iran who now lives in Canada and is following the case closely. A member of the security forces grabbed Ghare-Hassanlou, a radiologist known for his charity work, by the hair, put a knife to his throat and demanded to know where the couple kept weapons, Sadoughian says. He heard accounts of the night from those close to Ghare-Hassanlou.

Friends and family members, some of whom have spoken on condition of anonymity for fear for their safety, argue that there is no evidence the couple were involved in the violence against Basij member Ruhollah Ajamian. In addition, family members who said they spoke to the couple before their arrest recalled saying they came to the aid of a cleric who had been badly beaten nearby.

In a video posted online by the state-backed Fars News Agency, the cleric, identified by local media as Yasser Esmaili, describes how two people helped him when he was attacked. In particular, he notes that a woman wearing an inappropriate hijab stood near him, preventing the mob from attacking him again. Family members say this matches what Farzaneh Ghare-Hassanlou told them.

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On December 5, Ghare-Hassanlou was sentenced to death and his wife sentenced to 25 years in prison for her alleged role in the death of Ajamian, the Basij member. Family members, friends and human rights groups say the couple did not have adequate legal representation.

At least 15 people have been charged in Ajamian’s death; five of them, including Ghare-Hassanlou, were sentenced to death.

At least 11 people have been sentenced to death for allegedly violating the country’s conservative dress code in connection with the protest movement that began in September after the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in police custody, according to the New York-based Center for Human Rights in Iran imprisoned for women. More than 500 people were killed and about 18,000 arrested during the protests, according to activist news agency HRANA. Exact figures are difficult to ascertain.

“The way the authorities are using the death penalty in this case is intended to instill fear in the public,” said Nassim Papayianni, an Iran activist at Amnesty International. “To send a message that regardless of who you are and what your story or background is, we can arrest you in connection with these protests and quickly conduct an expedited mock trial to sentence you to death.”

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Observers, friends and family say that although Ghare-Hassanlou was not involved in the murder, the judiciary is using the case to discourage doctors and other professionals from getting involved in the protest movement. Doctors treating protesters have been targeted by police, the British Medical Journal reported.

This month the government executed two protesters, both 23-year-old men, for allegedly attacking security forces. Observers say the trial that led to her execution was rushed and inadequate. One of the men, Majid Reza Rahnavard, was hung from a crane with a sack over his head and his hands tied behind his back 23 days after his arrest.

When the Ghare-Hassanlous were first detained, they were allowed access to the outside world. Word has gotten around about their condition: Both were tortured, claim family members and friends.

“His ribs were broken during interrogations,” said Hassan Ghare-Hassanlou, Hamid’s brother, who lives in the Netherlands and is in contact with others close to Hamid. “One of the ribs led to the bleeding in his left lung.” Amnesty International said in a statement that sources close to Hamid said he had three surgeries to treat internal bleeding.

He is being held in a hospital, relatives say. A photo of him in the hospital obtained by The Washington Post shows bruises on his left leg and left side of his body. On the day scheduled for Ghare-Hassanlou’s first court appearance, his doctor recommended he join the court via video link as his health was not stable, according to friends and family members. Security officials still took him to court.

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Ghare-Hassanlou’s wife Farzaneh was beaten in the head with a baton and both her teenage daughter and an older son were threatened with violence if they did not confess to her husband. She agreed to say that her husband once kicked the militia member, but wrote a letter the next day rejecting the confession, which she says was obtained under torture and coercion. She also denied the confession in court, family members, friends and human rights groups say.

Many have gathered to support the couple. An online petition for her release has garnered more than 150,000 signatures. Molavi Abdol Hamid, a prominent Sunni cleric in the city of Zahedan who has become one of the government’s harshest critics since the protests began, spoke about the case at Friday prayers last week.

“This doctor is a philanthropist and has worked for many people,” he said. “Everyone asks that Dr. Free Hamid Ghare-Hassanlou and his family.”

Ghare-Hassanlou is known in Iran for raising funds for charities and organizing the construction of rural schools. In a video posted online last week, a group of girls who are students at one such school are calling for his release.

“The judiciary is very quick on these issues,” said Hassan, brother of Ghare-Hassanlous. β€œIn the case of the two people who were recently executed, it only took about a month for their trial and execution. International pressure can take that speed.”

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