Insider news & Analysis in Iran
Juvenile Death Sentences

By Mahmoud Hakamian 

Last Friday, the Iran Human Rights website published a report describing the latest death sentence handed down by the Iranian judiciary for a crime that was allegedly committed before the defendant was 18 years old.

All such executions are barred under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Crime. Iran is a signatory to both agreements, although as an IranWire report emphasized on Monday, the Islamic Republic has a long history of signing but refusing to ratify or implement international treaties and other agreements.

In fact, the clerical regime tends to take a particularly defiant attitude toward international human rights standards, routinely rejecting criticism on matters such as juvenile issues and portraying it as an example of cultural imperialism.

In line with this defiance, the Iranian judiciary has carried out at least five executions of juvenile offenders this year alone. The first three of these gave rise to widespread concerns that the regime was actually stepping up its implementation of such sentences, given that they came in more rapid succession that the previous year. The subsequent downturn may have been motivated in part by pressure from international human rights organizations and foreign governments, but the latest juvenile execution only underscored the regime’s rejection of international standards.

The victim of that October 2 execution was Zeinab Sekaanvand, an Iranian-Kurdish woman who was convicted of killing the man whom she’d married when she was only 15 years old. Her case became a cause for international activism not only because of the fact that she was 17 at the time of the alleged crime but also because of the unfair nature of her trial, including a lack of legal representation, reports that she was compelled to confess under torture, and the judiciary’s disregard for her claims of having been routinely abused by her husband and raped by her brother-in-law.

The schedule of Sekaanvand’s execution was apparently pushed back as a result of international pressure, but as almost invariably happens in these cases, the judiciary ultimately insisted that age was not a factor in the question of legal responsibility. Under Iranian law, boys can be considered legally responsible at the age of 15, and girls at only 9. Consequently, child marriage and juvenile executions are both common topics of criticism regarding the Islamic Republic’s human rights record. And the Sekaanvand case was a representative example of both of these, as well as the more general issue of women’s rights and inequitable application of justice.

Despite Iran’s internationally condemned notions of legal majority, Iranian law does provide a pathway for compliance with international standards, in that judges may assess the emotional maturity of individual juvenile offenders and declare them ineligible for the death penalty. But this rarely, if ever, occurs, and according to the Iran Human Rights report, no such assessment was even attempted in the case of the newly sentenced juvenile offender, whom the Iranian newspaper Javan had identified only by the first name Pouyan.
It was not immediately clear whether the individual named in that case is the same as the one who was identified by Iran Human Rights Monitor on Thursday. Although some details are similar in both reports – both describe the defendant as having killed a fellow youth in a fight – IHRM identifies the person by the name Shayan Saeedpour and notes that the sentence was handed down earlier, on October 23. According to Iran Human Rights, the announcement of the sentence in Javan did not specify the date of the hearing or the verdict.

The contrasting reports point to some of the means by which Iranian authorities attempt to obfuscate figures regarding detention, sentencing, and execution as part of an apparent effort to deflect some domestic and international criticism. IHRM notes that the “use of capital punishment in Iran is often shrouded in secrecy,” and that this fact leads to the possibility that the number of juvenile death sentences in the country is actually higher than the confirmed number or the estimates put forth by human rights experts.

The same report points out that Amnesty International has obtained details regarding 49 juvenile offenders who are currently on death row in Iran. In its report on the Sekaanvand case in October, Time Magazine reported that there were at least 88 such individuals, and the United Nations puts the figure at roughly 160.

Whether or not the Iran Human Rights and IHRM reports deal with the same individual, it is clear that juvenile death sentences and executions are widespread and frequently recurring problems in the Islamic Republic. What’s more, they are often closely connected to other human rights issues involving the abuse and mistreatment of prisoners and the frequent absence of due process in Iranian criminal cases.

As an example of these overlapping issues, IHRM pointed out that Shayan Saeedpour’s juvenile status was not the only mitigating factor that was ignored in handing down his death sentence. The defendant also reportedly had a history of psychiatric problems including multiple suicide attempts. It is very much an open question whether he will now receive any treatment for these problems, in light of the judiciary’s long history of withholding or limiting medical treatment as a form of pressure or extrajudicial punishment.

Strangely, while Saeedpour may be deprived of psychiatric care as he waits, potentially for years, until the implementation of his sentence, other prisoners may be subjected to unwanted hospitalization or medication as hardline authorities enact a new strategy for punishing political offenses and silencing dissent. This was the situation described on Tuesday by the Center for Human Rights in Iran when it reported upon the case of Hashem Khastar, a retired teacher’s rights activist who was arrested on October 23 by plainclothes officers and immediately taken to a psychiatric facility, despite having no known history of psychological issues.

Much like juvenile executions, this sort of arbitrary detention is a clear violation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The CHRI report clarified this fact and added that even if Khastar was diagnosed with mental health problems, his arrest would be in violation of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which declares that disability alone cannot be grounds for deprivation of liberty, as well as the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, which states that medical care and medication must be based on free and informed consent of the patient or a lawfully designated caregiver.

The apparent use of psychiatric detention as a form of extrajudicial punishment in this case is underscored by the fact that Khastar’s wife and two sons were arrested on Monday along with other protesters who had gathered outside the facility to call attention to the case and to add to the international chorus of outcry against Tehran’s blatant disregard for collectively agreed-upon human rights standards.

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