FactCheck: Iranian protesters have been arrested & killed, but 15,000 aren't sentenced to death

Justin Trudeau helped spread the claim, but later deleted his tweet.

CLAIMS THAT MANY thousands of protesters have been sentenced to death in Iran have been spread online in the past week.

Instagram posts, depicting the face of an Iranian protester, have been shared widely in Ireland. They say that 15,000 people have been sentenced to death for protesting in the country. 

These claims appear to be based on estimates of the number of protesters who have been arrested, as well as real calls by politicians to deal with the protesters decisively and warnings by a judge that protesters may be prosecuted for crimes that can carry the death sentence.

It is also true that a large number of protesters are estimated to have been killed in recent months and one person was sentenced to death after setting a government building on fire.

However, the claims are not accurate. There have not been 15,000 death sentences handed down in Iran recently. 

The claims appear to have been spurred by misleading headlines, including some by Newsweek, such as, “Iran Protesters Refuse to Back Down as 15,000 Face Execution” and “Iran Protesters Defy Regime to Mark ‘Bloody Friday’ as 15,000 Face Death”, as well as Mashable India, which ran story headlined: “Iran Issues Mass Execution Of 15,000 Detained Anti-Hijab Protestors”.

However, no sources are cited in these articles suggesting that 15,000 people are likely to be killed by the state – or have already been sentenced in this way.

Similar claims were also amplified by actors Sophie Turner and Viola Davis who shared posts on Instagram that read, “Iran sentences 15,000 protesters to death – as a ‘hard lesson’ for all rebels.”

Justin Trudeau also had tweeted: “Canada denounces the Iranian regime’s barbaric decision to impose the death penalty on nearly 15,000 protestors”, although this tweet was deleted after about 11 hours.

Although these claims are inaccurate, they do echo real events in Iran, including the deaths and mass arrests of protesters.

On November 14, Iranian media reported that a person accused of a number of serious charges, including setting fire to a government centre, had been sentenced to death.

Another three death sentences were announced today for protesters accused of violence during “riots”, the government’s term for a series of protests that began in September following the arrest and death of a woman, Mahsa Amini, accused of improperly wearing a headscarf. 

However, the Iranian reports on the deaths sentences emphasise that these verdicts are preliminary and can be appealed. 

The figure of 15,000 people facing the death penalty appears to come from estimates of the total number of protesters who have been arrested, though this figure should not be confused with the number who have been sentenced, charged with crimes, or who are still detained.

Hundreds of people have been indicted on charges related to the protests in recent weeks, according to Iranian media, which also said, in recent protests, most of those who had been arrested had been released the same day without charge.

However, it is difficult to independently verify these reports as Iran is one of the worst countries in the world for press freedom. “As the country’s media is largely controlled by the Islamic regime, the main sources of news and information come from media outlets that are based abroad,” Reporters without Borders – a press freedom group – explains. 

Iran Human Rights, a non-profit group based in Norway, said that “at least 20” protesters are facing charges punishable by death. 

The same group says that, since the start of the protests, at least 342 people have been killed by security forces, who have been filmed shooting at civilians and into crowds,.

Iranian media says 40 security forces had been killed by the protesters, who they say are backed by foreign governments to weaken the country.

A little over a week ago, most members of the Iranian Parliament supported reading out a letter requesting that the judiciary should deal decisively with the protesters as well as those who “provoke” them, including politicians, before chanting “Death to the seditionist” in parliament.

The head of Iran’s judiciary has since issued new orders on how to handle protests, focussing on speedy trials to maintain security.

Experts with the United Nations, who estimated that at least 304 people were killed and about 1,000 indictments issued, say that the death penalty has been widely used since 2019 against protesters in Iran, who are often accused of “unsubstantiated murder charges or vague national security charges.” 

They said at least two protesters were executed in 2020. 

As such, while people have been sentenced to death in connection with the protests in Iran, and many more are in danger, suggestions that 15,000 people have been sentenced to death are misleading.

Many people sharing these images online want to support the protests in Iran and rally against the regime. However, they do contain an inaccurate claim, despite the possibility that the state may, in the future, hand down more death sentences or punitive jail terms.