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Despite Khamenei's amnesty, most protesters in Iran won't go free, advocate says

People listen to a speaker during a demonstration to denounce the Iranian government and express support with anti-government protesters in Iran, in Washington, DC.
AFP via Getty Images
People listen to a speaker during a demonstration to denounce the Iranian government and express support with anti-government protesters in Iran, in Washington, DC.

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei last week reportedly ordered an amnesty or reduced sentences for "tens of thousands" of people amid anti-government protests that have continued since September.

Human rights groups estimate that nearly 20,000 people have been jailed since demonstrations broke out over the death of of Mahsa Amini, known by her Kurdish name Jina, while in the custody of the country's morality police.

According to Human Rights Activists in Iran, which has been tracking the crackdown, at least 527 people have been killed in the government's crackdown on protests. The group also says Iran executed four of those detained in hastened trials, which have been condemned internationally.

Iran has announced mass pardons in the past, usually around religious holidays or in this case on Feb. 11, the anniversary of the Iranian Islamic Revolution that brought the regime to power.

So how many of those detained protesters are likely to go free? Not many, said Gissou Nia, a human rights attorney who directs the Atlantic Council's Strategic Litigation Project. Nia spoke to Morning Edition's Leila Fadel about Khamenei's announcement and what it really means.

The digital highlights include some quotes from the interview that were not included in the broadcast version.


Interview highlights

What's the significance of Khamenei's announcement?

Iran has a history of granting mass pardons on days of recognition or Shia holidays. Most of those pardoned are old or ill and need medical treatment. In Iran, you can also be jailed for not paying debts, so a fair amount of those being released are debtors, Nia said.

"So this isn't actually this isn't that significant, despite the news being shared widely," Nia said.

How many of the protesters will actually walk out of prison?

The majority of the Iranians who are given amnesty are not the people that were participating in the protests, Nia said.

Iranian state media reported the amnesty didn't apply to those facing charges related to espionage, links to foreign intelligence services or attacks on government or public sites — what many of the protesters have been charged with.

"So although it's been reported at a time after this massive state crackdown on peaceful protests and all these people in jail, it's not actually that significant in terms of what it means for releasing protesters," Nia said.

Who is this gesture directed at?

Nia said there are two audiences for Khamenei's announcement:

One is the international audience. It's an attempt at showing the world "There's nothing going on here – we're releasing prisoners now."

The amnesty announcement is directed at the countries Iran maintains diplomatic and trade relations with in Latin America, Africa and throughout Asia.

"The messaging is aimed at those countries to try to show that they have the situation under control – that it's really not as stark as it seems," Nia said.

The other audience is inside Iran. Despite the fact that many Iranians get their news from satellite TV and are looking for outside sources, a lot are still tuned in to state TV.

"And so they are getting the message that Khamenei has taken mercy on a lot of these individuals, but not getting the full facts of what is really happening," she said.

Protesters who might be released aren't getting off scot-free

For those being released, some are being placed under house arrest after their release. Some had to sign 'letters of regret' asking for forgiveness. Others will have their travel documents confiscated so that they can't leave the country.

Are the protests continuing despite the crackdown?

Much of the news coming out of Iran is from citizen journalists.

"And when the Internet is disrupted and when there are issues and getting that news out, unfortunately, we don't get the full picture," Nia said.

International media has been allowed into the country, but they are closely monitored by authorities and haven't been given access to prisoners.

She called the dissent in Iran "a slow burn" and that there is widespread sentiment that the status quo can't continue.

"When it's freezing cold and when you risk being put to death, obviously, you know, the protests will take different forms."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
John Helton