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Iran's supreme leader pledges to pardon thousands of jailed protesters

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, says the country will pardon or commute the sentences of tens of thousands of prisoners ahead of Saturday's anniversary of the 1979 revolution. That might sound like good news for the about 20,000 people that activists say have been jailed since protests broke out in September over the death of Mahsa Amini in police custody. She was also known by her Kurdish name, Jina.

But the amnesty comes with conditions. It doesn't cover charges related to espionage, links to foreign intelligence services or attacks on government or public sites - in other words, charges that many Iranian protesters face. So is this a genuine promise to release thousands of Iranians detained for dissent? Or is it about controlling the narrative after months of protest? We reached out to Gissou Nia, a human rights attorney who directs the Strategic Litigation Project at the Atlantic Council, to put these pardons in context for us.

GISSOU NIA: These pardons happen periodically. It is usually in conjunction with some sort of Shia holiday or another day of recognition. So this one was an announcement ahead of the 44th anniversary of the revolution of '79. It definitely, I think, helps with the Islamic Republic's narrative that nothing is going on and that they're going to be lenient with prisoners. But the reality is that almost 20,000 people have been arrested in connection to these protests. Everyone who is facing capital punishment, which is about 100, are still in prison. Seven hundred other people have been sentenced to draconian long sentences. And the majority of the folks who were given amnesty here are not the people that were participating in those protests.

FADEL: And this also came with conditions, right? Not any antigovernment protester is going to be released under this amnesty.

NIA: Yeah. So a lot of times, even if somebody who is a prisoner of conscience or a political prisoner is released, there are certain conditions - they're maybe put under house arrest. They're (non-English language spoken), which means they're not allowed to leave the country. In this case, it seems that a lot of people had to sign, quote-unquote, "regret letters" asking for forgiveness. So, yeah, this is not a sort of unconditional release.

FADEL: So then, ultimately, how many of the thousands that were announced would actually walk out of jail?

NIA: You know, in the Islamic Republic, you can imprison debtors, and they'll release people who owe debts, who are sick, who are older. So although it's been reported at a time after this, you know, 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.

FADEL: Now, the speaker of the Parliament called this a, quote, "fatherly gesture." Who is this gesture for?

NIA: One is a global audience. There has been a U.N. fact-finding mission set up to investigate the situation in Iran since mid-September. And I think this is a bit of a play to say that, you know, there's nothing going on here. We're releasing prisoners now. The other audience could be domestic. Despite the fact that many, many Iranians get their news from satellite television and looking to other 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.

FADEL: So what is happening on the ground? I mean, I know this was the main headline for weeks, these mass protests, the executions and the crying mother outside when she heard of her son's death.

NIA: So the country obviously had been experiencing protests since December 2017. But this was the most sustained period of protests with people coming to the streets. I think one challenging coverage is that when international correspondents are allowed in, they're not allowed to visit the prisons to see what's happening there. And we very much rely on citizen journalists to get the news out. And when the internet is disrupted and when there are issues in getting that news out, unfortunately, we don't get the full picture. But when it's freezing cold and when you risk being put to death, obviously, you know, the protests will take different forms then. So their narrative is not correct.

FADEL: Gissou Nia of the Atlantic Council.

Thank you so much for joining us.

NIA: Thank you for having me on. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.