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Has Iran voted to execute 15,000 protesters? Misleading claims circulate on social media

Evening Standard logo Evening Standard 16/11/2022 Seren Morris
Iran protests.jpg © AFP via Getty Images Iran protests.jpg

Misleading reports that Iran plans to execute 15,000 protesters have been circulating on social media following news that the first protester has been sentenced to death.

Iranians have been protesting since the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in September, who died three days after she was taken into police custody for wearing her headscarf “incorrectly.”

There have been reports that at least 300 people have been killed and that 14,000 to 15,000 protesters have been arrested.

Jeremy Laurence, a spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, said that at least 10 protesters have been charged with offences that carry the death penalty.

While Iran’s first death sentence in relation to the recent protests is alarming, the claim that 15,000 protesters are to be executed is misleading.

Did Iran vote to execute protesters?

Earlier in November, Iran’s state-run media reported that 227 of Iran’s 290 lawmakers signed an open letter calling for protesters to be harshly punished.

The punishment that the protesters would face was unspecified, but could potentially include the death penalty.

According to NBC, the state news agency reported that the letter read: “We, the representatives of this nation, ask all state officials, including the Judiciary, to treat those, who waged war [against the Islamic establishment] and attacked people’s life and property like the Daesh [terrorists], in a way that would serve as a good lesson in the shortest possible time.”

Has Iran sentenced protesters to death?

Iran has issued its first death sentence in relation to the protests that were triggered by the death of Mahsa Amini.

On November 13, an unnamed protester was sentenced to death for setting fire to a government building.

Human rights groups have warned that this first death sentence may be a sign that more executions are set to follow.

However, there are no confirmed reports that 15,000 protesters have been sentenced to death.

Where did the misleading claim originate?

On November 11, Newsweek published an article with the headline “Iran protesters refuse to back down as 15,000 face execution.”

Newsweek also published another article with the headline “Iran votes to execute protesters, says rebels need ‘hard lesson’.”

The articles quickly went viral and resulted in claims that Iran had voted to execute 15,000 protesters, which were widely circulated on social media.

However, on November 15, Newsweek updated the article’s headline and issued a correction: “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.”

The headline was updated to read: “Iran protesters refuse to back down as first execution sentence handed down.”

A second article’s headline was also updated to read “Iran parliament chants ‘death to seditionists’ in protest punishment call.”

How did the claim spread on social media?

Politicians and celebrities have been sharing the false claim, including Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau and actors Sophie Turner and Florence Pugh.

Mr Trudeau tweeted: “Canada denounces the Iranian regime’s barbaric decision to impose the death penalty on nearly 15,000 protestors.

“These brave Iranians were fighting for their human rights — and we continue to stand united in support of them, and united against the regime’s heinous actions.”

The post was later deleted and the president’s office said in a statement: “The post was informed by initial reporting that was incomplete and lacked necessary context. Because of that, it has since been deleted.”

A tweet by Qasim Rashid, a human rights lawyer, that shared the Newsweek article said: “The Iranian parliament votes overwhelmingly (227-63) to execute the 15,000 protesters they already arrested,” was retweeted 39,000 times and liked by 84,000 people at the time of writing.

He later shared a follow-up tweet that read: “UPDATE: Newsweek updates their reporting to say the letter signed by 227 Iranian MPs ‘could’ include the death penalty. This isn’t any better. Authoritarian regimes push the Overton window to normalize violence. I’m glad Iran is backtracking. Keep shaming them for this horror.”

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