Iran already maintains its status as the nation with the world’s highest rate of executions per capita, with approximately 3,600 individuals having been hanged since President Hassan Rouhani took office in 2013. Although still higher than any other nation except China, the annual number of confirmed executions declined last year to 285. But Raisi’s request and Ali Khamenei’s response suggest that this downturn may turn out to be short-lived.
The lower annual figure reflects a change in the Islamic Republic’s drug laws, permitting lesser sentences in the cases of non-violent drug trafficking involving small-to-moderate quantities of banned substances. Yet questions quickly emerged as to whether the new sentencing guidelines were being consistently applied. And in any event, other groups have continued to be subject to the death penalty despite factors that define their executions as violations of international law.
According to Iran Human Rights Monitor, at least 10 political prisoners were executed in 2018, along with at least six individuals who were under the age of 18 at the time of their alleged crimes. Eleven hangings are known to have been carried out in public, and the crowds at such events have been known to include children.
The above statistics were cited in the context of a report explaining that five more Iranian prisoners had been put to death on Wednesday alone. Two of these killings took place in Rajai Shahr Prison, although there was reportedly potential for several more in that same facility. The Iran Human Rights website had previously reported that at least five and perhaps as many as 10 inmates had been transferred to solitary confinement at Rajai Shahr in preparation for their executions.
The postponement of some of those hangings reflects a trend of psychological torture in the Islamic Republic. Some death row inmates have reported being moved into solitary confinement then returned to their normal cells on several different occasions, making it effectively impossible to know when a capital sentence is actually going to be carried out. But whereas this is no doubt a deliberate tactic of torture in some cases, there are other cases in which the ambiguity results from the peculiar practice of qisas.
This Islamic legal principle allows the families of victims to forgive alleged perpetrators of crimes including murder, generally in exchange for the payment of blood money. In one of the recent cases from Rajai Shahr, the inmate’s execution was entirely cancelled on the order of the victim’s family. In another three cases, the prisoners were reportedly returned to their cells after the victims’ families requested that they be granted additional time to raise the requested sums.
This goes to show that the rate of execution in the Islamic Republic would probably be significantly higher than it already is, if not for the intervention of ordinary citizens. In some cases, such intervention may be motivated by compassion, but it is also true that the vast majority of the population is struggling with poverty and therefore desperately in need of the money that might be raised via qisas.
This muddying of the waters on Iran’s capital punishment statistics was evident in Iranian state media’s reporting on the newfound authority of the judiciary’s deputy head. The ISNA news agency reported that in the two and a half months since Mohseni-Ejei was empowered to impose capital punishment, the judiciary has “facilitated the conclusion of more than 600 cases of qisas and execution.” It is unclear what portion of these 600 cases are expected to actually result in the inmate’s hanging, and in any event that figure may differ from the number of new capital sentences that are actually carried out.
Whatever the final result, the accelerated processing of capital cases surely reflects a turn toward even more hardline practice than had previously been normalized by the judiciary. This trend began in earnest with Ebrahim Raisi’s appointment to head the judiciary in March. Raisi, who had previously challenged President Rouhani during his campaign for reelection in 2017, is widely recognized as one of the regime’s worst violators of human rights. His background includes a prominent role in the death commissions that ordered the death of approximately 30,000 political prisoners in 1988, as part of the regime’s effort to stamp out opposition groups including the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran.