Call for Death Penalty Reform Contradicts Willingness to Violate Law and Human Rights

A number of other recent reports have indicated that there is growing support for this type of reform. However, some of those reports have pointed out that changing the maximum sentence of most drug traffickers faces obstacles in the form of the Iranian supreme leader and the Assembly of Experts, which is tasked with vetting legislation and candidates for high office, in order to assure that they are in line with the principles of the Iranian revolution and the regime’s fundamentalist interpretation of Islamic law. 

Hardline opposition has defeated similar reform efforts in the past, and this raises serious questions about whether the current push can be expected to be any different. Hardliners can be expected to push back against death penalty reform not only because of its traditional application to the country’s religious laws, but also because such reform might be seen as representing capitulation to foreign pressure, in light of the widespread criticism that Iran has received for its execution of political prisoners and its overall rate of judicially sanctioned killings. 

Many leading figures in the regime are clearly anxious about the perception of weakness in the wake of last year’s diplomatic agreement over the Iranian nuclear program. This has been expressed through a strict crackdown on supposed pro-Western or anti-Islamic sentiment, and through provocative moves against Western entities, including close encounters at sea and arrests of dual nationals inside of Iran. 

But it is worth noting that, at least in the case of the justice minister, support for reform has carefully avoided gratifying Western criticisms or implying Iranian acceptance of international human rights standards. Quite to the contrary, Pourmohammadi declared that he considered a change in the death penalty law to be prudent simply because the existing law had failed to have a deterrent effect in recent years, and not because of the number of individuals put to death annually. 

The AFP report noted that Pourmohammadi had advocated “alternative penalties” for drug traffickers, but had also justified Iran’s overall reliance on the death penalty, not just as punishment for the most serious crimes but as punishment for any person deemed to be morally irredeemable. The abolition of capital punishment is not possible, he said, because “there are corrupt people in the country for whom there is no alternative but execution.” 

In 1988, Pourmohammadi was the Intelligence Ministry representative to the Tehran “death commission,” which put thousands of political prisoners to death in a single summer, mostly on the basis of their affiliation with the opposition People’s Mojahedin Organiztion of Iran. In August, a long-buried audio recording was released in which then-heir to the supreme leadership Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri was heard to criticize Pourmohammadi and others for their participation in the “greatest crime of the Islamic Republic.” In the wake of that revelation, Pourmohammadi openly declared that he was “proud” to have helped carry out “God’s command” of death for members and supporters of the PMOI. 

Such sentiments go a long way toward demonstrating that Pourmohammadi does not support death penalty reform on humanitarian groups. And according to his recent remarks, the justice minister believes that “the judiciary as a whole” shares his opinion on the matter. The lack of humanitarian concerns over capital punishment is evident in the behavior of the judiciary, as well, and not only because of its implementation of roughly 1,000 capital sentences in 2015, but also because of its aggressive prosecution of anti-death penalty activists. 

Last month, an Iranian appeals court upheld the 16-year sentence handed down against renowned lawyer and human rights activists Narges Mohmmadi for her peaceful activities and her leading role in the organization Step-by-Step to Stop the Death Penalty. In the wake of that move, 15 members of the Iranian parliament took the unprecedented measure of sending a letter to the judiciary urging reconsideration of her case. But there has been no response from judiciary head Sadeq Larijani, and lower-ranking officials have been noticeably dismissive of the request. 

The International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran reported on Tuesday that judicial spokesperson Gholamhossein Mohseni Ejei had told the Iranian press that Mohammadi’s verdict is final and that “Islamic mercy” cannot be applied to a case that has already been decided. The same report quoted Prosecutor General Mohammad Jafar Montazeri as accusing Mohammadi’s domestic defenders of acting “based on ignorance” and allowing themselves to be “deceived by the enemy.” 

Montazeri also accused Mohammadi and other human rights activists of being one part of a three-fold strategy by the West, aimed at “weaken[ing] the identity and besmear[ing] the Islamic state.” This further underscores the regime’s opposition to reforms that seriously challenge the repressive laws currently in place. It also highlights the regime’s paranoia about foreign influence, which has been driving the crackdown of dual nationals and pro-reform activists. 

The International Campaign’s report went on to further emphasize the resistance to reform by pointing out that the supposedly moderate President Hassan Rouhani has still failed to follow up on his 2013 campaign promises assuring improvement of the human rights situation. That same year, the Rouhani administration assumed control over the Commission for the Implementation of the Constitution and Constitutional Oversight, which could have given it unprecedented authority to challenge abuses of human rights by the state. But the commission was never used for this purpose, and a Rouhani administration official explained that its members were “more focused on holding seminars on theoretical topics, rather than administrative issues.” 

Also, in December of that year, Rouhani introduced the first draft of a Bill of Rights, but it was never adopted and never moved past the initial phase of public debate. “In fact, the Rouhani government has been unresponsive to numerous violations of human rights,” the International Campaign explains. 

Meanwhile, other organs of the government have plainly contributed to those violations, or publicly justified them. In some such cases, the abuses not only violated international standards but also the laws of the Islamic Republic itself. This trend could serve to further undermine the significance of calls for death penalty reform by such figures as Justice Minister Pourmohammadi. That is to say, the regime’s demonstrated willingness to violate its own laws could allow for the death penalty to continue being applied arbitrarily, even if less frequently than during the recent surge in drug-trafficking executions. 

The International Campaign observes that Prosecutor General Montazeri’s “continuous verbal assault” on Narges Mohammadi, together with his accusation that she is tied to a Western plot, is a violation of Article 39 of the Iranian Constitution, which calls for punishment of those who defame detainees. And even if Montazeri is ignorant of the provision, that in itself is a violation of another article which calls for his position to be occupied by legal experts. 

An earlier report called attention to another person who, like Narges Mohammadi, had been subjected to arbitrary accusations instead of being treated in accordance with specifically defined Iranian laws. The person in question, Mansoureh Behkish, is connected to the group Mothers of Laleh Park, which was founded by the mothers of victims of the 1988 massacre and which calls for action to bring justice to those victims. In September, she was banned from leaving the country while on her way to visit her daughter, and was then summoned to court to answer for unspecified accusations. 

Behkish explained to the International Campaign that this was only one of many run-ins with the country’s security operation, each of which was based on politics and ideology rather than the law. “Anyone who opposes their views is treated as an enemy,” she said, adding that critics of the 1988 massacre have been subject to constant threats and pressure aimed at ending their activism. 

Of course, with respect to the 1988 massacre, the death penalty as a whole, and a wide range of other human rights topics, there are numerous instances of people being subject to extrajudicial punishments, including months-long periods of pre-trial detention, torturous interrogations aimed at eliciting false confessions, and mistreatment such as the denial of medical treatment for persons who are serving prison sentences. 

In some cases, legal violations by the judiciary are spurred by intervention from elsewhere in the regime, particularly from the Intelligence Ministry and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, both of which have apparently seen an increase in their domestic power in recent years, leading to the widespread perception of these organs as being above the law. 

This has reportedly been the case with Maryam Akbari Monfared, who made headlines last week when after having written a letter to the prosecutor general over the execution of her siblings as part of the 1988 massacre. The National Council of Resistance of Iran previously reported that she had been subject to new threats as a result of that letter. But the International Campaign notes that she had already been under pressure since her 2009 arrest for alleged participation in the 2009 Movement and connection to the PMOI. 

Two and a half years ago, Monfared’s family offered a property deed in order to pay the unusually high bail amount of 362,000 dollars for her furlough. But since that time, the judiciary has been holding onto the deed while also arbitrarily keeping Monfared in prison on instructions from the Intelligence Ministry, in yet another apparent violation of the country’s own laws.