Iran recently prosecuted and executed Ruhollah Zam, a 42-year-old Iranian journalist. He was charged with committing “corruption on earth.” The execution is viewed as a strong message from the Iranian political system to anyone who criticizes it and prompted several European countries to boycott an online business forum in Tehran. The European Union (EU) strongly condemned the execution, further straining relations between Iran and the EU. Zam’s execution has worsened Iran’s international reputation, particularly after the execution of Iranian wrestler Navid Afkari three months ago. Zam’s execution once again prompted the international community, including various international NGOs and human rights organizations, to strongly condemn the execution.
Zam was found guilty by Iran’s Supreme Court on an ambiguous charge of “corruption on earth”– one of the most serious offenses in Iran. Amendments to Iran’s penal code in 2013 increased the scope of offenses such as “corruption on earth” to prosecute political activists/dissidents and sentence them to death. Zam took part in the nationwide Green Movement protests in 2009 in the aftermath of the disputed presidential election. After spending some time in jail, Zam sought asylum in France where he ran a news website called Amad News and coordinated a Telegram channel during the anti-government protests in 2017 and 2018. While reporting on a wide array of issues, Zam also investigated and wrote on financial corruption in Iran and shared his findings which placed him under the spotlight of the Iranian leadership. As per some reports in October 2019, Zam was persuaded to travel to Iraq based on what appeared to be an invitation from the office of Iraq’s Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. Upon reaching Iraq, reports suggest that he was kidnapped by the IRGC. However, Sistani’s office has rejected these claims repeatedly. On reaching Iran, Zam was charged with national security violations for which Iran’s Supreme Court sentenced him to death. Zam was accused of serious criminal activities including interfering with Iran’s economy, spying on behalf of French intelligence, and conspiring with the United States and Saudi Arabia against Iran. Zam’s execution is not an isolated incident with multiple reports indicating Iran’s role in a series of kidnappings and murders in 2020 alone.
Iran’s execution of Zam is seen as a horrific violation of international human rights. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet said, “Zam’s death sentence and execution are emblematic of a pattern of forced confessions extracted under torture and broadcast on state media being used as a basis to convict people.” Amid growing concerns about Iran’s violations of human rights, some experts have urged the EU to emphasize human rights when dealing with Tehran. The ambassadors of France, Germany, Italy and Austria boycotted an online Iranian business forum and France called the execution “barbaric and unacceptable.” In addition, several international NGOs like Reporters Without Borders and Amnesty International condemned the execution. Germany’s PEN Center, an association of writers championing freedom of expression, released a statement urging that Zam’s execution should lead to diplomatic and economic consequences and further suggested renaming the street where the Iranian embassy is located in Berlin to Ruhollah-Zam-Allee to attract wider attention to not only the execution but Iran’s ongoing human rights violations. Leander Sukov, PEN Center’s vice president, urged the Berlin Senate to adopt the suggestion as every letter sent to Iran’s embassy would bear the name of Ruhollah Zam, thereby reminding the Iranian leadership of its heinous crime.
The new tensions with Iran over its human rights violations coincide with President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration next month. During his presidential campaign, Biden had mentioned his intention to rejoin the nuclear deal if Iran complies with its provisions. Amid a lot of speculation on how the incoming Biden administration will deal with Iran, some of Biden’s top aides responded to Zam’s execution. Biden’s nominee for Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, and the nominee for National Security Advisor, Jake Sullivan called out the execution and emphasized that the incoming US administration “will stand up to Iran’s abuses.” It is not clear as to what this means and implies, and whether the new administration will take steps such as imposing more sanctions on the Iranian political system or whether the human rights file will be incorporated into the nuclear deal along with other files such as Iran’s ballistic missile program and interference in regional affairs or whether this file will be handled separately via punitive actions or coordination with European allies to heap extensive pressure on the Iranian leadership to address this file. It waits to be seen whether the Democrats take this file seriously, having turned a blind eye to it while signing the 2015 nuclear deal, letting the Iranian leadership off the hook for its crimes committed against its own citizens as well as against the peoples of the region in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen.