The Iran Human Rights (IHR) website, for instance, reported that 207 executions had been carried out in the Islamic Republic since the beginning of 2018. Iran Human Rights Monitor (IHRM) puts the figure slightly higher, at 223. Both acknowledge that there are vast disparities between the actual number of executions and the number that is officially acknowledged by the Iranian judiciary.
IHR recorded 75 official announcements, meaning that roughly two-thirds of all the known executions have been revealed to the world from unofficial sources, including activists inside Iranian prisons and on death row. This being the case, the possibility remains that even more executions have been carried out than either of the above-mentioned groups was able to confirm.
In any event, the existing figures present no threat to Iran’s world-leading status with regard to the death penalty. Only China, with its population of 1.38 billion people, puts more inmates to death on an annual basis that Iran, with its population of 80 million. This fact remains true despite the fact that Iran’s roughly 200 executions in 2018 represent a significant decline over the previous year’s figures.
This decline, from 437 executions during the same period in 2017 according to IHR, is largely or entirely attributable to a change in Iranian drug laws which allowed non-violent offenders to be subjected to alternative punishment such as life imprisonment or another long sentence. This change was evidently adopted by the Iranian legislature in response to simultaneous domestic and international pressure, and it was codified in law despite previous efforts to establish the same change were overturned by the Guardian Council as being un-Islamic or detrimental to Iran’s security.
Similar arguments have been presented by leading Iranian authorities to shut down any talk of further reform of the Iranian criminal justice system. IHR quoted judiciary head Sadeq Larijani as saying, “Most of the claims about violation of human rights in Iran, including opposition against the death penalty, is indeed opposition to Islam. Qisas [retribution in kind] is the direct order of Quran.”
The historical application of this sentiment to capital punishment in drug cases has led to recurrent speculation that the law might not be seriously implemented over the long term, or that it might be implemented only selectively. And while most reports indicate that drug-related executions have largely stopped, few concluded that they have halted completely. IHR finds that eight of the 207 total executions so far this year were carried out on drug offenders. Meanwhile, IHRM reported last week that four Afghan men were executed on October 2, also on charges of drug trafficking.
The report notes that these charges were accompanied by a charge of killing a police officer, but even if the allegation of murder is true, the simultaneous execution of the four detainees suggests that no distinction was made between the person who committed that crime and those who were merely present while committing other crimes. For their part, the four men denied the allegations against them and one, 50-year-old Mohammad Miranzehi, declared that they had been convicted of murder on the basis of false confessions elicited through torture.
This is a common feature of disputed convictions in the Islamic Republic, and as IHRM pointed out in its report, it was one of the features that led to widespread international condemnation of the death sentence for Zeinab Sekaanvand, which was carried out at the beginning of October. The case was also representative of Iran’s contempt for international standards related to the treatment of juvenile offenders, as Sekaanvand was only 17 years old when she allegedly murdered her husband, to whom she had then already been married for more than two years, during which time she complained of abuse but was rebuffed by police officers.
Of the more than 2,000 inmates who are currently on death row in Iran, 85 of them are reportedly juvenile offenders, even though their execution is barred by two international agreements to which Iran is a party. Unlike the execution of non-violent drug criminals, the execution of juvenile offenders has not slowed down but may actually be accelerating. Sekaanvand was at least the fifth such prisoner to be executed in 2018 (IHRM identifies her as the sixth), and so Iran has already surpassed the number of juvenile executions known to have been carried out in all of 2017.
When considered as a proportion of total executions, the rate of juvenile executions has thus gone up significantly. But in terms of raw numbers, the country appears to be roughly on pace with its average over the past five years. Since the supposedly moderate President Hassan Rouhani took office in 2013, the judiciary has carried out an average of roughly seven executions of juvenile offenders per year, for a total of 34, according to IHRM. That same source indicates that during this same period, 3,602 inmates have been executed in total, including 84 women and 86 political prisoners. Fifty-five of the executions were carried out in public.
Estimates for the number of executed political prisoners might vary slightly on account of different interpretations of what constitutes a politically motivated execution, but there is no doubt that Iran has a firmly established track record for applying the death penalty to activities that would not be recognized as crimes in most any other country. In many cases, these executions rely on disregard for Iran’s own laws, or else they apply vaguely defined charges on the basis of the whims of judicial authorities or hardline institutions.
The Center for Human Rights in Iran provided an example of this phenomenon on Tuesday when it reported that three individuals had been sentenced to death for allegedly hoarding or profiteering off of foreign currencies at a time when the value of the Iranian rial was in sharp decline. CHRI noted that “Iran has no laws against buying, selling, or stockpiling gold and foreign currencies” but also that the judiciary head had branded currency traders as “economic saboteurs,” prompting Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei to speak out in favor of the “intention to punish acts of economic corruption quickly and fairly.”
In addition to the three capital sentences related to that activity, a further 32 traders have been sentenced to prison terms ranging from one to 20 years. Sadeq Larijani had previously set the stage for the death penalty by saying of these detainees, “Some of them are engaging in acts that amount to ‘corruption on earth,’ and the punishment for that is clear.” He did not, however, specify what, if any, criteria led to given actions being classified as such corruption.
Notably, the same charge has been presented as a seemingly arbitrary justification for prospective death sentences against truck drivers and other Iranian workers who have been participating in nationwide strikes for nearly three weeks. On Tuesday, Death Penalty News reported that the judiciary had specifically recommended capital punishment for at least 17 persons arrested in connection with the strikes. In addition to being accused of “corruption on Earth,” truck drivers have also been described as “waging war against God” and as committing “banditry” by blocking roads. Each of these charges may lead to the death penalty under Iranian law.
This use of the death penalty as a weapon against peaceful economic protests is one symptom of a much larger crackdown on dissent, which naturally includes a crackdown on activism targeting the death penalty. A number of such activists are currently serving prison sentences in connection with their work, but as the American Thinker pointed out on Wednesday, the work of these and other types of activists often continues from behind bars. The article points out that political prisoners, especially those who are themselves on death row, “remain especially active, despite threats and harassment,” and despite the fact that they are “singled out for harsh treatment.”
The IHRM report on Iran’s death penalty made a point to call attention not only to the excessive, unlawful, and arbitrary application of capital punishment but also to the inhumane conditions that face death row inmates and much of the general prison population in Iran. “Death row prisoners in Iran linger in catastrophic conditions from solitary confinement to the medieval tortures inflicted on them,” the report observed before listing some of the specific tortures to which prisoners are subjected, such as being left hanging by their feet or wrists, being flogged while eating, having their nails pulled out, or having needles pushed into their genitals.
Separately, IHRM confirmed that that threat of such torture has not halted political activity or silenced Iranian prisoners’ appeals to the international community. On Sunday, the outlet published the text of a letter signed by a group of Iranian death row inmates, which called for international condemnation of the country’s executions and urged “the families of all death row prisoners, political prisoners and all political and human rights activists to unify and become the voice for the annulment of the death sentence and to aid the people of Iranian in countering this historical calamity.”
The statement also underscored the relationship between the Iranian regime’s historical repression of dissent and its historical relationship with the death penalty, declared that “executions have turned into an instrument in the hands of the authoritarian rulers of Iran to consolidate their rule and suppress the people.”