On Tuesday, Voice of America News reported that the United Nations had undertaken efforts to stop the execution of an Iranian inmate who had been sentenced to death when he was only 15 years old. The execution of juvenile offenders is a clear violation of international conventions on human rights and the rights of the child, both of which Iran has signed and ratified. Yet the judiciary of the Islamic Republic continues to defend the practice, upholding juvenile death sentences and affirming the maturity and legal responsibility of the condemned even when international pressure has led to those cases being reviewed or re-tried.
The present case involves Sajad Sanjari, whose death sentence was handed down in 2012 after he was accused of fatally stabbing a man. Sanjari claimed that the incident was case of self-defense against an attempted rape, but this argument was rejected by the courts. Barring the success of the UN campaign, the young man now stands to become the first juvenile offender to be executed in 2017. Voice of America notes that at least five juvenile offenders were executed last year and that at least 78 people are currently on death row in Iran for crimes they allegedly committed while younger than 18. It also points out that the actual figures may be much higher than these, given the often secretive nature of Iran’s judicial proceedings.
This secrecy will also make it difficult to pin down the total number of executions that were carried out in the Islamic Republic during 2016. It already appears that most estimates for this figure exceed 500. While exceptionally high by global standards and enough to retain Iran’s status as the country with the highest per-capita rate of executions, this figure would be modest by comparison with 2015, during which Iran is widely understood to have executed nearly 1,000 people.
These annual totals rely in large part on information gathered by anti-death penalty activists, human rights groups, and dissident organizations like the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran. One day after the announcement of the UN campaign for Sajad Sanjari, the Iran Human Rights website reported upon one instance of mass execution in Vakilabad Prison, this one targeting four drug offenders. Iran’s population of death row inmates is dominated by non-violent offenders who have been accused of possession or trafficking of narcotics, often in relatively small quantities, sometimes even less than a kilogram.
The Iran Human Rights report suggests that the overzealous prosecution of drug traffickers may also lead to the execution of innocent persons, possibly including one of the four individuals executed in Vakilabad. Identified as Akmad Shekarabi, that individual actually had his initial death sentence overturned by the Iranian Supreme Court, only for his case to be sent back to a lower-court, resulting in another death sentence, which this time was confirmed by the highest court. Shekarabi had been a taxi driver for another man who was arrested for drug trafficking.
It appears that the only evidence against Shekarabi was the statements of his customer accusing him of knowing what was in the packages that that customer was carrying. The circumstances of this accusation are unknown, but Iranian law enforcement authorities have a demonstrated track record for putting pressure on arrestees to implicate others, often under threat of torture. Such tactics are particularly evident in cases of political imprisonment, and the resulting false implications or false confessions can become the sole basis for a successful national security case.
Such political imprisonments and dubious national security convictions make up a small portion of the country’s death sentences, but those same inmates may come under threat of death by other means, including the denial of life-saving medical treatment, persistent post-conviction torture, and life threatening hunger strikes undertaken to call attention to political imprisonment and systematic mistreatment.
Indeed, the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran notes that there has been a major surge in hunger strikes in recent months. One particularly high profile example of this came to at least a temporary conclusion early this month when demonstrations and social media campaigns by supporters of Arash Sadeghi compelled the Iranian regime to grant temporary release and a retrial to his wife and fellow political prisoner Golrokh Ebrahimi Iraee. This concession came only after 71 days of self-imposed starvation brought Sadeghi to the brink of death, and even then it reportedly upwards of two days for prison authorities to see to his hospitalization.
Sadeghi’s hunger strike is not even a record among recent protest actions. One report from the International Campaign indicated on Tuesday that imprisoned civil rights activist Ali Shariati had been convinced by fellow political prisoners and his own family to end his life-threatening hunger strike after 75 days. Shariati’s protest had also spurred a social media campaign, but in this case it ended without his achieving his goals, mainly a review of his case, which he described as having no legal basis.
Shariati began serving a five year prison sentence in October on charges of “acting against national security” through his participation in protests two years earlier. Those protests outside of the Iranian parliament building sought to call attention to a wave of acid attacks on women, which many critics of the regime believed to be connected to efforts to empower civilian militias in the enforcement of female veiling and other religious laws.
Other hunger strikes are still ongoing, and some have declared much broader intentions than had Shariati. For instance, another report by the International Campaign explained that Saeed Shirzad was hospitalized for the effects of a more than month-long hunger strike on January 12. In spite of the impact of that protest on his health, Shirzad reportedly has no intention of ceasing the protest, and has indicated that he is willing to carry on to the point of death in order to expose what he described as “the quiet death of political prisoners” at the hands of abusive prison authorities.
Shirzad’s lawyer, Amirsalar Davoodi predicted “another political crisis” for the Iranian regime as a result of his client’s persistence. Shirzad has reinforced his protest by sewing his own lips shut – a tactic that was referenced in yet another report by the International Campaign, describing a much earlier hunger strike undertaken by political prisoner Mohammad Nazari in 2002.
Nazari remains in prison to this day, serving a life sentence that was reportedly based on nothing other than his membership in an opposition group urging Kurdish autonomy. What’s more, that life sentence only came into effect after an earlier sentence of death was commuted by the supreme leader, as part of the Islamic festival of Eid Qorban. His subsequent hunger strike sought a review of his case – something that Nazari also pursued by writing “thousands of letters to every authority you can imagine.” But not only have none of his requests been addressed, he appears to have faced additional pressure as a result of his prison activism.
The International Campaign’s report was focused on Nazari’s recent request for medical furlough, which has been denied on the basis of the judiciary’s claim of having lost his case files. His medical conditions have reportedly grown severe enough to now include periods of partial paralysis, but his prospects for receiving treatment seem dim, in line with the regime’s habit of denying political prisoners access to medical services.
Presumably, this denial would have been extended also to such figures as Arash Sadeghi and Saeed Shirzad if not for the prominence and international visibility of their cases. In fact, the remarkably slow reaction to Sadeghi’s life-threatening hunger strike may indicate some willingness to allow political prisoners to die even in spite of the potential for both domestic and international outcry. But in other cases, the regime clearly strives to avoid this scrutiny by isolating prisoners and putting them under pressure to end hunger strikes before external support is brought to bear on their cases.
In one example of this phenomenon, the International Campaign reports that the Lebanese-born permanent resident of the United States, Nizar Zakka, has faced additional punishment in Tehran’s Evin Prison as a result of his initiating a hunger strike on December 8. It is difficult to say whether that hunger strike is still ongoing, since Zakka is now being denied contact with his family, as well as having been transferred out of the facility’s political ward and into a ward populated by violent criminals.
Zakka is seeking immediate release and access to consular and medical services. He is serving a 10-year sentence for unspecified national security charges, and his case has been widely cited as an example of Iranian authorities’ ongoing targeting and entrapment of dual nationals. Government officials had officially invited Zakka to a conference on women and sustainable development before the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps arrested him. His case is currently under appeal, but the newfound pressure of his transfer, coupled with the health effects of his hunger strike, may put his life at risk before that process is completed.