Rejecting International Norms, Iran Speeds the Execution of Minor Offenders

On Tuesday, NBC News reported that the judiciary in the Islamic Republic of Iran was preparing to implement the death sentence for another offender who was under the age of 18 at the time of his arrest and conviction. Mehdi Bohlouli was 17 in 2001, when he was sentenced to hanging for fatally stabbing a man during a fight. International law prohibits the execution of minor offenders, but the Islamic Republic has repeatedly ignored this fact despite being a signatory to the international documents that establish it.

Bohlouli is the second minor offender to be transferred for execution in two weeks. Last week, Alireza Tajiki was hanged as a result of his conviction for male rape, which was based on a confession elicited under torture when the young man was only 15 years old. Tajiki was the fourth known instance of a minor offender being executed in Iran this year. In an urgent call to action preceding that execution, Amnesty International pointed out that there were nearly 90 other minor offenders who were already on death row awaiting the implementation of their sentences.

Naturally, the execution of Bohlouli just one week later could raise the question of whether the judiciary is increasing the pace of these executions. As well as having the highest per-capita rate of executions in the world, the Islamic Republic also has a reputation for carrying out hangings en masse. At the beginning of this month, it was reported that at least 102 executions had been carried out in July alone. This equaled nearly half of the number that had been carried out over the previous six month period.

Since then, reports have continued to emerge of the persistence of Iran’s various internationally condemned activities with regard to the death penalty. For instance, Iran Human Rights finds that on Thursday, August 10, at least 12 inmates were hanged, with 11 of these executions taking place in the same prison, following a series of transfers. Other reports have detailed public hangings and the lack of fair trials. All of these well-established human rights issues have opened Iran to active criticism from international activists.

The trend of mass executions dates back to the start of the Islamic Republic in the 1980s, which saw its single most egregious example. In the summer of 1988, an estimated 30,000 political prisoners were hanged, some of them dozens at a time. Most of these victims were members or affiliates of the leading opposition group, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran, and their families and colleagues have maintained a campaign to uncover more details of the killings and of mass burial sites, and to ultimately bring major perpetrators before an international court.

Last year, the political prisoner Maryam Akbari-Monfared wrote a letter to Iranian officials demanding answers about the 1988 massacre, which claimed the lives of four of her siblings. This week, she returned to the news when the Center for Human Rights in Iran reported that she had written another open letter, this one complaining about a tour that had recently been held for foreign diplomats at Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison, where she is being held alongside numerous other political prisoners.

The tour was limited to specific areas of the facility and carefully avoided contact between political detainees and the selected diplomats. Human rights activists quickly dismissed the publicity stunt as part of an effort to dispel foreign criticism of Iran’s human rights record at a time when awareness of abuses appears to be increasing both domestically and globally. Last year saw the release of audio recording made about the 1988 massacre by Hossein Ali Montazeri, who was at the time next in line to be the Islamic Republic’s supreme leader. The revelations by Montazeri’s son led to unprecedented levels of public dialogue about an incident that had once been subject to a conspiracy of silence imposed by the regime.

At the same time that this dialogue is ongoing, the regime is reasserting its commitment to established practices that go against human rights standards. Some of these efforts may be tied to efforts by hardliners to disavow the notion of cooperation with Western powers following the 2015 nuclear agreement. In any event, the persistence of those practices is deeply at odds with the regime’s apparent desire to avoid harsher criticism. And this seems to leave Tehran with little recourse but to suppress public dialogue, either through deception as in the case of the Evin Prison tour or through crackdowns on those promoting such dialogue.

It has been widely acknowledged that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and the Ministry of Intelligence have both been engaged in a widespread domestic crackdown since before nuclear negotiations with the US and five other world powers were concluded. And on Tuesday another report by the CHRI cited the political analyst Sadegh Zibakalam as one of the latest persons to be caught up in this crackdown. The report notes that Zibakalam has been arrested and charged with spreading propaganda and “disturbing public opinion” solely on the basis of comments he made in foreign media about the politicization of the Iranian judiciary, which is supposedly an independent body but has lately appeared to be increasingly loyal to the IRGC.

Apart from simply opening the Islamic Republic up to further criticisms from both foreign and domestic sources, Zibakalam’s comments may also hint at a reason for the judiciary’s conspicuously hardline activity on matters like the execution of minor offenders. That is to say, insofar as the IRGC is leading the crackdown on persons with supposedly pro-Western viewpoints, the hardline paramilitary may also be using the judiciary to reinforce the perception of independence from international norms in matters of law and human rights.

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