Sponsorships for opponents of the regime: How German politicians help prisoners in Iran

Tens of thousands of people are in prison in connection with the protests in Iran.

Sponsorships for opponents of the regime: How German politicians help prisoners in Iran

Tens of thousands of people are in prison in connection with the protests in Iran. The regime does not shy away from death sentences. In order to support the imprisoned, more and more German MPs take on political sponsorships. With success?

Because Toomaj Salehi raises his voice, he faces death. The 32-year-old rapper from Iran is one of the most well-known critics of the mullahs' regime. In his lyrics, he openly attacks the government and expresses his solidarity with the protests that swept the country after Mahsa Amini's death. Salehi was arrested at the end of October and has since been held in Dastgerd prison in the city of Isfahan. The charge: "depravity on earth" and "war against God". This is punishable by death in theocratic Iran.

It is said that a confession was extracted under torture. He was denied his own lawyer. Salehi's sentencing may be imminent, though it's uncertain when exactly. Because arbitrariness in the judiciary is also a tool used by the Iranian state to silence critics.

Many Iranians are like Salehi. An estimated 18,000 people are being held in connection with the protests, which have been going on since mid-September. Some death sentences have already been carried out. In order to prevent further executions, German MPs are currently taking on political sponsorships for inmates. The concept is not new and has been widely used for prisoners in autocratic countries like Belarus or China. For Iran, however, the sponsorships are unusually popular. Also because it is - even more than usual - a matter of life and death.

More than a hundred German politicians have taken on sponsorships in recent weeks, and new ones are added almost every day. The first was Ye-One Rhie, a member of the SPD in Aachen. She has been campaigning for rapper Salehi since the end of November. The mediation came about through activists, since then she has made contacts in the country and informed about his situation on Twitter. In a letter to the Iranian ambassador, she called for Salehi's release. The dubious answer came back that the trial against him would be "lawful, fair and taking Islamic mercy into account".

The Iranian ambassador receives such letters several times a week from MPs from all parties in the Bundestag, apart from the AfD. Interest in sponsorships among parliamentarians has "exploded" in recent weeks, says Rhie in an interview with ntv.de. "My office has become a cross-party call center for interested colleagues." Long-established politicians such as Thuringia's Prime Minister Bodo Ramelow or CDU foreign affairs expert Norbert Röttgen have also joined. For example, Röttgen supports the well-known human rights lawyer Mostafa Nili, who has been in custody in Greater Tehran since November.

Every evening she consults with other MPs about who is particularly at risk, says Rhie. "We are under tension day and night." The sponsorships are primarily about creating public pressure. "As German MPs, we also set a different level of fall for the regime. When we learn of planned executions, we make it clear that we are looking very closely," said Rhie.

In the beginning there was a fear of getting lost in symbolic politics. The ability of members of the Bundestag to influence the Iranian regime is limited. But Rhie says she's getting a lot of positive feedback from Iranians who feel they are heard. Activist voices like that of the author Mina Khani are also in favor of the sponsorships. Many people from Iran would be grateful for the commitment, writes Khani on Twitter. "Practical solidarity is possible."

In addition, the sponsorships do not seem to go past the Iranian government. "Since there have been so many sponsorships, some previously announced executions have not been carried out," says Rhie. This is shown, for example, by the commitment of the Berlin SPD deputy Hakan Demir, who last week took over the sponsorship of the brothers Farzad and Farhad Tahazadeh. As he reports in a video, they were threatened with execution the following day. This was then not carried out. However, circles close to the government spread a picture of Demir on the Internet, which said: This member of parliament is lying.

"The regime felt compelled to respond to the sponsorship, which shows how nervous it is," Rhie said. She sees the release of the only 16-year-old Sonia Sharifi as another success. Shortly after the CDU member of the Bundestag Katja Leikert became her godmother, the girl was released from prison. "But the charges remain, she can be arrested again at any time. Her life is still in danger," writes Leikert on Twitter.

Should there be international investigations against the regime in the future, the sponsorships could also contribute to the investigation. "There will come a time when Iran will have a different government," says Rhie. "We as godparents then know exactly which judges, public prosecutors or executioners were involved in the executions and can report back."