On Thursday, despite an urgent call to action from Amnesty International the day prior, it was reported that 21-year-old Alireza Tajiki had been executed at Adel Abad Prison on the basis of a conviction for male rape which had been handed down when he was only 16 years old. The execution of minor offenders is a violation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Iran is a signatory to both of these documents, and the country’s regime has repeatedly come under severe international criticism over its persistent refusal to halt the execution of persons who were under 18 years old at the time of their alleged crimes.
The Islamic Republic did reform its laws on such executions in 2013, to allow for judges to eschew the death penalty in cases where it is believed the young offender was mentally incompetent or insufficiently mature to understand the crime being committed. But in practice these reforms have had almost no effect on the practice of minor execution, which is believed to still be carried out in only a half dozen other countries. The change of laws has led to some minor offenders having their cases reviewed by the Iranian judiciary, but death penalties in these cases have almost always been upheld, with judges and other Iranian officials dismissing subsequent criticism as attempts at cultural imposition upon the laws of the Islamic theocracy.
Naturally, the Tajiki execution has been regarded as a further affirmation of the Iranian regime’s dismissive attitude. The International Business Times report on the matter noted that international human rights groups had described it as “flagrant violation” of international laws. The same report indicated that Tajiki’s execution is the fourth known incidence of a minor offender being put to death in Iran this year alone. The Amnesty International call to action reported that 88 other such offenders remain on death row following Tajiki’s hanging.
The continued execution of minor offenders is part of a much broader Iranian human rights crisis related to the death penalty. The Islamic Republic has long maintained the highest per-capita rate of executions in the world. In the first six months of 2017, at least 239 inmates were put to death across the country, with many of those executions taken place en masse. Then, in July at least 102 additional death sentences were implemented. This puts the country well on its way toward maintaining its world-leading record, although it falls well short of the nearly 1,000 executions that were carried out in 2015.
Annually, the vast majority of Iran’s executions are reportedly carried out against non-violent drug offenders. The International Business Times report on Tajiki’s execution as accompanied by an earlier video report focusing on the connections between these killings and European funding for anti-drug operations being carried out in the Islamic Republic. The United Kingdom-based NGO Reprieve has determined that these connections are direct and causal, and it has urged European powers to put some restrictions on the financing of anti-drug campaigns, in order to decrease the likelihood of their leading to executions that do not rise to international standards for the “most serious crimes,” for which the death penalty would arguably be justified.
The controversy over these anti-drug campaigns can now be regarded as an outgrowth of the larger controversy over Western capital that is reaching or may reach the Islamic Republic in the wake of the Iran nuclear agreement, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Critics of that deal have noted that in this case also there is a lack of restrictions on how such capital can be spent, leading to the possibility of it contributing to human rights violations including unjustified executions. Furthermore, various human rights organizations have accused Western powers of focusing their attention narrowly on the JCPOA, to the exclusion of important human rights issues.
The simple fact of Iran’s excessive usage of the death penalty is made worse by the ways in which prisoners are treated and their executions carried out. On Tuesday, the Iran Human Rights website issued two relevant reports. One pointed out that an alleged drug trafficker by the name of Nader Farrokhnejad had been transferred to solitary confinement on Saturday in preparation for the implementation of his death sentence. But this was not the first time he had undergone this process, and his previous solitary confinement ended after his execution was delayed. This practice is commonplace on death row in Iranian prisons, as is the arbitrary implementation of capital sentences, meaning that inmates may live in a constant state of psychological torture, not knowing when their lives might end.
The other Iran Human Rights report identified a 30-year-old alleged rapist who had been executed in Farrokhshahr. As is the case with various death sentences, based on various types of charges, the individual was reportedly executed in public, before a large crowd of people. Previous reports have noted that children have been spotted in attendance at some such public hangings, which are often conducted atop cranes and thus visible across great distances.
Even non-capital cases in Iran are infamous for arbitrary punishment, often aimed at making an example of the accused. This is especially true of political prisoners, dozens of which have been confirmed as being held in Iranian jails at present. As well as reaching a 25-year high in number of executions during the first term of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, the country has also undertaken an accelerated crackdown on human rights activists, ethnic minorities, labor unionists, and others. These crackdowns have provided the international community with numerous case studies in familiar human rights violations such as arbitrary sentencing and the denial of medical treatment.
Both of these trends were showcased by one recent article from the Center for Human Rights in Iran, regarding the labor activist Reza Shahabi. After receiving a six year sentence for propaganda and assembly against national security as a result of his peaceful organizing, Shahabi secure the rare concession of medical leave from his prison sentence, in the midst of serious health problems. Although his legal term in prison has since expired, he was recently ordered back to prison because a prosecutor decided that three months of his leave had been “unapproved.” Although Shahabi willingly returned to prison rather than risk his bail guarantor having property confiscated by the state, there is little guarantee that he will be released at the end of the three months, since other political prisoners have been known to come under new charges or to simply not be released at the conclusion of their sentence, because hardline authorities determined that their punishment had not been adequate.
The Tajiki execution has certainly focused renewed attention upon one human rights issue in the Islamic Republic. But there are a range of closely related issues that have arguably been put on the back burner by the international community while leading powers remain focused on other issues, including prospects for economic reengagement.