On Wednesday, the UN Dispatch pointed to the previous day’s speech to the UN Human Rights Council by Iranian Justice Minister Alireza Avaei, in order to highlight the “contentious” relationship between that body and the Islamic Republic. Avaei’s speech had been a source of controversy since the list of speakers at the newly opened session of the HRC was publicized last week. The council noted that the Iranian official was not directly invited and that any UN member state may address a session’s opening and choose its own representative. Nonetheless, human rights activists and opponents of Iran’s clerical regime urged world powers and the HRC to condemn Avaei and cancel his speech.
NCRI specifically called upon the EU to condemn Avaei’s appearance before the HRC. AFP and AP also reported on the positions of the Iranian Resistance and quoted:
“Allowing Avaie to address the Human Rights Council is disgraceful and would make a mockery of the United Nations and its human rights mechanisms,” Shahin Gobadi, a member of the National Council of Resistance of Iran, told AFP
UN Dispatch reported that several EU delegates to the council walked out after he mounted the podium. Additionally, Reuters reported that about 100 protesters remained outside the UN headquarters throughout Avaei’s speech.
That speech reportedly did not address any of the familiar criticisms regarding the Islamic Republic’s human rights violations. Despite positive public statements from the Rouhani administration regarding these areas of concern, that criticism has actually intensified in some circles during recent months and years.
In the first place, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and the Ministry of Intelligence have been widely accused of pursuing a crackdown on any signs of dissent or pro-Western sentiment since the conclusion of nuclear negotiations between Iran and six world powers in the summer of 2015. More recently, mass protests emerged in dozens of Iranian cities starting in late December, before they were violently suppressed approximately two weeks later. According to the National Council of Resistance of Iran, these resulted in over 8,000 arrests, at least 50 shooting deaths, and more than a dozen instances of detained protesters being killed under torture.
The NCRI shared news of the 13th such incident on Wednesday, identifying Taleb Basativand as a student at Ilam University who had been arrested for participating in a January protest, then released on bail only to be arrested again on February 18, leading to the announcement of his death eight days later.
Extrajudicial killings are among Iran’s frequently criticized human rights violations, and accounts of such deaths effectively add to the already staggering statistics regarding legally imposed death sentences in the Islamic Republic. The Reuters report on Avaei’s speech pointed out that the UN has determined that approximately 500 executions took place in Iran during 2017 alone. This constitutes the second highest number of executions in the world, behind China, and the single highest rate of executions per capita.
Avaei did not directly address the general criticism over these executions, but he did suggest that recent changes in Iran’s drug laws would lead to far fewer executions in years to come. The vast majority of death sentences reportedly stem from non-violent drug crimes, and the international furor over this situation may have aided in the passage of parliamentary measures revising the law to raise the benchmark for mandatory capital sentences. However, human rights advocates have expressed skepticism about whether the changes will be actively implemented by the Iranian judiciary.
This skepticism is arguably reinforced by Iranian authorities’ long history of paying lip service to international criticisms while simultaneously violating both domestic and international laws in the interest of preserving standard judicial practice. This trend has been repeatedly showcased, for instance, by Tehran’s attitude toward the execution of juvenile offenders. Death sentences for persons under the age of 18 are positively outlawed by two international human rights conventions to which Iran is a signatory. Yet Iran remains one of only approximately a half dozen countries that continue to carry out such executions.
The UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights issued a new statement about this issue earlier in February, noting that three juvenile death sentences were carried out in January alone, suggesting a significant acceleration in carrying out these unlawful killings. Five juvenile offenders were hanged in Iran during the entirety of the previous year, although dozens remained on death row. The OHCHR pointed out that several of these are apparently in imminent danger, and at least one was on the verge of being executed before being granted a two month reprieve in February.
This individual and others have been schedule for execution multiple times, and some reprieves appear to come in response to targeted international pressure over the case. However, in nearly all such cases, the condemned prisoner’s death sentence is confirmed upon review and carried out at a later date. The review process generally examines whether the accused was mature and mentally competent at the time of the crime. Iranian law considers boys to be legally mature at 13 and girls at only nine years of age.
On Tuesday, a report by the CHRI highlighted one juvenile death sentence and pointed to the ways in which it showcased the judiciary’s lack of independence and tendency to bow to the most hardline pressures. That report indicated that the state’s own medical examiner found accused murder Mohammad Kalhor to have not been mentally mature when he allegedly committed his crime at the age of 15.
Despite initially being sentenced to only three years in prison, Kalhor was re-tried and sentenced to death after a deputy education minister and an influential member of parliament each wrote letters to a Supreme Court judge urging the change. Stories like this one highlight the possibility of similar pressure being exerted in the case of drug convictions and other situations in which the regime’s traditional, hardline attitudes toward jurisprudence clash with international law and international pressures for improvement of Iran’s human rights record.
In this way, such stories reinforce the message that many human rights advocates see as having been conveyed by Tehran’s decision to dispatch a known violator of human rights as its representative to the UN Human Rights Council.