TEHERAN – Iran was set to offer limited pardons or commutations to some Iranian prisoners, including some protesters swept up in recent mass demonstrations, the state news media reported on Sunday, but the move offered little hope of freedom to the vast majority of political prisoners.
Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei would free or reduce the sentences of tens of thousands of prisoners, including people arrested in the recent demonstrations and those convicted of other crimes, several state-controlled news agencies said.
But the long list of caveats made it doubtful that many protesters would benefit, prompting human rights activists to call the amnesty a sham. The announcement said the pardons would not apply to anyone convicted on a range of serious charges, as rights groups said most demonstrators were.
Excluded were those convicted of spying, armed action, committing murder or causing injury, being members of certain groups, having contact with agents of foreign intelligence services or destroying public property, among other crimes, according to Fars, a state-controlled news agency.
Also disqualified, it said, were prisoners convicted of being “an enemy of God” – a charge levelled against most of the 19 protesters whom The New York Times confirmed had been executed or were now on death row.
Other inmates would be released only “after expressing remorse and pledging not to repeat these security-related offences”, Fars said.
Mr Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the Centre for Human Rights in Iran, said that although it was difficult to assess the government’s pledges before seeing the results of the amnesty, a small number of low-level protesters might be released at most.
“The pardons seem to be more propaganda than actually addressing the large number of political prisoners,” he said. “We should really be focusing on the fact that something in the order of 10,000 political prisoners in Iran exist. As long as they are in jail, these pardons are really not substantial or effective in addressing the protests’ grievances.”
Iran’s prisons and courtrooms were overcrowded before the protests began, and Mr Ghaemi suggested that the pardons were a way for the judicial authorities to clear out some of the most minor cases to focus on higher-priority prosecutions.
Cities across Iran erupted in protest in mid-September after the death in custody of Ms Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Kurdish Iranian woman arrested by the morality police for what they said was a violation of Iran’s conservative Islamic dress code.
The uprising targeted first those rules, then the entire Iranian leadership. For months, Iranians demanding a new secular system were locked in a bloody battle with their authoritarian leaders, who tried to crush them with bullets, beatings and arrests.
Rights groups say security forces have killed at least 500 people since the protests began, including 50 children. The United Nations says at least 14,000 have been arrested.
But with courtrooms locked to outsiders and the government tight-lipped about the crackdown, Sunday’s announcement appeared to be a rare official acknowledgment that many people had been arrested in what Iran calls the “riots”.
Iran has accused foreign countries and their spies of instigating the demonstrations, while offering few real concessions to the protesters. There is some confidence that Iran will prevail in the amnesty announcement, with Fars describing the protests as “coming to an end”.
Apart from continuing unrest in Sistan-Baluchistan, an impoverished eastern region, the street protests that rocked Iran have subsided amid the executions and violence. Even as the government prepared to release some prisoners, however, other actions showed that it was not letting up the pressure, which added to the rage of many ordinary Iranians.
On Sunday, the authorities arrested a journalist whose twin sister, also a journalist, was in prison because of her reporting on Ms Amini’s funeral in September.
Meanwhile, the government stoked fury by sending riot police officers to north-western Iran, where thousands remained stranded in the cold after a damaging earthquake last week in Khoy, even as it blocked crowdsourced aid from arriving there.
On social media in recent days, Iranians were reacting with horror to photographs of an emaciated Iranian rights advocate, Dr Farhad Meisami, imprisoned since 2018 and on hunger strike for four months.
It appears unlikely that limited pardons will muffle such anger or satisfy protesters who have demanded that Mr Khamenei be overthrown. He offers an amnesty every year around this time to mark the anniversary of the 1979 Islamic Revolution; usually, it does not cover political prisoners.
The chief of Iran’s judiciary proposes the criteria for the amnesty each year.
“During recent events, some, especially young people, have committed crimes and misbehaved due to enemy propaganda and indoctrination, causing trouble for themselves and their families,” Mr Gholamhossein Mohseni-Ejei, who leads the judiciary now, wrote to Mr Khamenei this year, according to the state news media.
“But now that the schemes of foreign enemies, counter-revolutionary groups and those against the population are revealed, many of them express their regret and ask for forgiveness.” NYTIMES