News : Human rights

On World Day Against the Death Penalty, Iran Is Moving in the Wrong Direction

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Thursday marked the 17th annual World Day Against the Death Penalty, and thus it provided another opportunity for human rights advocates to highlight Iran’s status as the world’s second most prolific user of capital punishment. Yet the Iranian regime hold the record of execution per capita.

Furthermore, the figures that have been recorded so far in 2019, especially since the appointment of a new judiciary head in March, suggest that the numbers of executions are rebounding. This came as little surprise to those who are familiar with Iran’s new top law enforcement official, whose appointment by the clerical Supreme Leader.

Ebrahim Raisi is notorious for human rights violations, including but not limited to his prominent role in the interrogation and summary execution of political prisoners and members of the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI, Mujahedin-e Khalq or MEK) in 1988. An estimated 30,000 individuals were killed as part of that massacre, with victims including young teenagers. In this way, it set the stage for a number of issues related to the death penalty which persist to the present day.

Iran is one of the last countries in the world to continue carrying out capital sentences for persons who were under the age of 18 at the time of their offenses. And the judiciary has been widely and repeatedly condemned for its failure to consider any mitigating factors when sentencing prisoners to the death penalty. Mental illness, self-defense, and a history of abuse all stand alongside youth as examples of such factors. But juvenile execution is unique in being categorically outlawed by two international documents that Iran has signed.

The Iranian regime routinely rejects such provisions, in spite of the signature, by characterizing them as cultural impositions which should not be allowed to override the clerical regime’s adherence to a hardline interpretation of sharia law. On this basis, Tehran continues to regard boys as legally mature at the age of 13, and girls at only nine. Under constant international pressure, the government did alter the law to allow judges to consider lesser sentences for youthful offenders, but in practice, this principle is rarely used.

Consequently, at least two juvenile offenders have been executed so far this year. Human rights activists rely on independent reporters and prisoners themselves to uncover executions that might otherwise have gone unreported.

Iran Human Rights Monitor has reported figures spanning the time between its annual reports on capital punishment in Iran, which are released to coincide with World Day Against the Death Penalty. Between October 2018 and September 2019, at least 273 executions were reportedly carried out across the country. Of these, eight were juvenile offenders.

Ebrahim Raisi’s appointment as head of the judiciary took place just at the halfway point of the period covered by the Iran Human Rights Monitor report. And that report underscores the fact that the vast majority of the executions took place in the latter half, with Ebrahim Raisi overseeing 173 of them. The spike in executions was accompanied by a spike in overall repression, and IHRM finds that at least six of the state’s victims were political prisoners. However, a number of other previously-reported executions may also fall under this category, as Tehran frequently depends on vague charges like “spreading corruption on earth” or “enmity against God” to justify capital sentences.

The public display or broadcast of female dancing is illegal in the Islamic Republic, and this is another area of social behavior that has seemingly been targeted by Raisi’s judiciary at the same time that his courts are driving up the rate of executions. On Tuesday alone, at least three young women were detained for posting videos of themselves dancing, and at least one reported that her family had been threatened not to speak publicly about the case.

This, too, is a common phenomenon in Iran’s criminal justice system. Struggling to keep a veil of secrecy over the country’s human rights record, officials tend to insist that criminal cases will be resolved quickly and more favorably if they remain undisclosed. But in reality, secretive cases do not seem to proceed any more quickly; and in fact, silence can sometimes have fatal consequences insofar as it gives law enforcement officials an opportunity to keep detainees in isolation where they can be more easily tortured to elicit false confessions.

Although a number of high profile individuals have died under these conditions in recent years, their deaths are not tallied among those who have been hanged in Iranian jails. As such, anti-death penalty activism directly addresses only a portion of the fatal problems with Iran’s judiciary and prisons.

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