Iran’s Supreme Leader pardons thousands linked to headscarf protests

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has pardoned “tens of thousands of prisoners”, including many who were arrested during nationwide anti-government protests.

The pardons, which come yearly on the eve of the anniversary of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, came with caveats that stop any dual nationals from being released.

Anyone charged with spying for foreign agencies, intentionally committing murder or injury, or causing destruction or arson of property would not be pardoned, state media said. Those facing the capital charge of “corruption on earth” would also not be eligible.

The “hypocritical pardon of protesters is an act of propaganda”, said Oslo-based NGO Iran Human Rights.

Not only should “all protesters be released unconditionally… but it is a public right that those who ordered the repression and their agents are prosecuted,” it added.

The Ayatollah regularly issues collective pardons or commutes sentences on major religious anniversaries. The last was in October when they applied to almost 1,900 prisoners on the eve of Iran marking the anniversary of the birth of the Prophet Muhammad.

Collective pardons were also issued following the protest movements in 2009 and 2019, according to Dr Sanam Vakil, Iran lead at Chatham House.

“The pardons are important because it does show an effort at restoring some legitimacy and trust with the population,” she said. “But it is unlikely that the pardons will result in any meaningful reform of the system, which is what is needed in order to stem the anger and frustration seen throughout Iran.”

For tens of thousands to be affected in this decree shows for the first time Iranian authorities acknowledging the scale of arrests that they have made since the protest movement was born in September.

Authorities have refused to release any official data on the number of arrests, leaving rights groups trying to monitor arrests across the country’s population of 87 million.

According to human rights activists in Iran, almost 20,000 people have been arrested since the unrest began. Their tally also estimates that at least 527 people have been killed, while four are known to have been executed after being sentenced to the death penalty.

Pardon does not equate to policy shift

For analysts, the pardon does not equate to a shift in policy for the regime’s crackdown on the protest movement.

“The regime’s repressive apparatus is firmly in place,” said Jason Brodsky, policy director of United Against Nuclear Iran. This “propaganda ploy” was designed “to quash the revolutionary sentiment inside the Iranian population [and] trick the West into thinking that reform is possible when it’s not”, he said.

The head of the judiciary requested the pardons, claiming that many of the young protestors had been led astray by foreign influence and propaganda. From the outset, Iran has blamed the protests on the West as an attempt to destabilise the Islamic regime.

“The Iranian establishment has well-worn tools it can use as pressure valves – at home and abroad,” Mr Brodsky said.

“Pardons, commutations of sentences, and allowing more pragmatic voices in the Iranian political system to increase their visibility in the country are just some of them. But the Iranian people have seen this movie before, and aren’t buying it.”

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