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Death Penalty, Other Abuses “More Severe” in Iran during First Four Months of 2019

By Mahmoud Hakamian

Iran Human Rights Monitor released a report on Monday detailing the Iranian regime’s human rights abuses over the course of April. The report identifies specific examples of several familiar abuses, including the practice of political imprisonment, the use of torture and medical deprivation as means of exerting pressure on such prisoners, and the chronic overuse of the death penalty.

The execution of Mehdi Sohrabifar and Amin Sedaghat stands out in that report as one of the regime’s most internationally condemned actions during the given 30-day period. Last week, the cousins made headlines in the global press and were named by Amnesty International in a statement regarding Iran’s persistent defiance of international law through its execution of persons who were less than 18 years old at the time of their alleged crimes.

Sohrabifar and Sedaghat were accused of committing rape and robbery, although their trial was subject to irregularities that are commonplace in Iranian jurisprudence. Both boys were reportedly deprived of legal counsel and beaten into providing confessions. But regardless of these facts or facts regarding their culpability for the alleged crimes, the Islamic Republic is a signatory to two United Nations documents that categorically ban the execution of juvenile offenders.

Iran routinely ignores the relevant provisions while asserting the right to allow its own laws, or Islamic law, to supersede international agreements. For many years, this defiance of the global will prompted Iranian judiciary officials to continue the practice of executing non-violent drug criminals, as well as juvenile offenders. Although the latter practice remains largely unchanged, the rate of executions in the Islamic Republic has declined over the past two years as a result of changes to minimum sentencing laws for certain persons accused of drug trafficking.

Still, this has not prevented Iran from retaining its status as the country with the highest per-capita rate of executions. This was confirmed by the IHRM report and, one day earlier, by a report specifically focused on the death penalty, which was prepared by the group Iran Human Rights.

While the general report on April’s abuses notes that there were at least 27 executions carried out in that month alone, the accompanying report indicates that a further 52 people, at a minimum, were executed in the preceding three months. This represents an increase over the same period last year. Between January and April of 2018, at least 64 people were put to death by the Iranian judiciary.

As well as carrying out more executions overall, the Iranian regime has arguably demonstrated even less sensitivity to international condemnation during the first months of 2019. Iran Human Rights points to uncorroborated reports that a third juvenile offender may have been executed during that period. If these reports prove true, it will mean that Tehran killed as many such prisoners between January and April as it did during the entire previous 12-month period.

Additionally, both of the given reports emphasize that these figures are only minimums, and that the actual numbers of executions, including juvenile executions, could be considerably higher. The Iranian regime has a long history of maintaining official secrecy in these matters, and this was readily apparent in the case of Sohrabifar and Sedaghat. Neither the condemned boys nor their families were informed of the death sentence ahead of time. While the family was invited to visit them in prison the day before their hanging, they were not told that it was their last opportunity to see them alive. This was disclosed only after they were instructed to return and collect the bodies, which showed marks of having been flogged prior to hanging.

This level of secrecy can perhaps be explained in part by the fact that the judiciary did not follow its usual procedure in this case by keeping the condemned children in prison until after they had passed the legally recognized age of majority. This being the case, the international response would have no doubt been louder, had the plans for this execution been revealed ahead of time.

Tehran’s anxiety over international scrutiny is evident in other areas of its human rights record, as well. The regime has been recognizably engaged in a war on foreign “infiltration” at least since the conclusion of nuclear negotiations with six world powers in 2015. Supposed signs of this infiltration are numerous and include the promotion of “Western” lifestyles via social media networks and the apparently rising levels of conversion to other faiths in the Shiite Islamic theocracy.

The crime of apostasy can also be grounds for execution under that system, and the threat of such sentencing may become even more serious as the regime’s paranoia grows regarding the erosions of its fundamentalist national identity. Minister of Intelligence Mahmoud Alavi recently issued a public warning about that phenomenon, telling a gathering of clerics in the city of Qom that Christianity is spreading among “ordinary people,” who had accordingly been summoned to answer for their spiritual interests.

The potential consequences of such summons were made clear by Voice of America News last week when it reported that at least 171 Christians had been arrested for practicing their faith during the year 2018, compared to only 16 the year before. This figures come from the latest annual report by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, and it notes similar escalation in the crackdown on non-Shiite Muslims and others.

Of course, coordinated attacks upon “freedom of religion and belief” were a highlight of the Iran Human Rights Monitor report, which specifically emphasized the continued plight, in April, of the homegrown religious minority known as the Baha’i. IHRM then connected this religious persecution to the persecution of ethnic minorities, noting that “at least 88 Ahwazi Arabs, 12 Kurdish people, three Baluchi people and three people from Iran’s Turkic minority were arrested by the state security forces” in April.

But recent stories regarding Iran’s human rights record also underscore that specific religious or ethnic identities are not necessary in order for a person to be identified as a threat to Iran’s enforced hardline identity. For example, IranWire pointed to the case of expatriate journalist and poet Mohammad Tangestani, who is just the latest such person to be made subject to an Iranian cleric’s fatwa declaring him an apostate. The declaration reportedly stems from one particular poem that takes aim at Islamic extremism, supposedly insults the Iranian regime by decrying the epidemic of poverty, and makes unfavorable reference to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force.

Additionally, Tangestani’s case is indicative of the threat that Iranian authorities perceive in the simple act of communicating freely about Iranian affairs. This situation was highlighted on World Press Freedom Day on Sunday, which spurred an outpouring of statements in solidarity with recently arrested Iranian journalists. This trend was highlighted by the Center for Human Rights in Iran, with regard to the case of Marzieh Amiri. The report quoted one of her colleagues as stating in no uncertain terms that she “was arrested for doing her job: Journalism.”

More specifically, the arrest stemmed from Amiri’s effort to inquire about workers’ rights activists who had been arrested at a rally marking International Workers’ Day on May 1. Just days earlier, a dozen activists were arrested for a preliminary gathering in which they allegedly called for broader protests to mark the annual occasion. This led at least one activist to observe that the government’s pressures on workers had followed the same trend in recent months as has its pressure on religious minorities, dissident authors, and others, in the sense that they had grown “more severe than before.”

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