However, some reports have highlighted the fact that previous initiatives to change the law have failed in large part because of opposition from hardliners and the Guardian Council, which has the authority to block any legislation or political candidate that it determines to be adverse to the Iranian constitution or the council’s interpretation of Islamic law. There is no evidence that opposition by these factions has diminished since the introduction of the latest initiative, and indeed there has been a push for the rapid implementation of the death penalty even while the present debate has been ongoing.
In 2015 alone, the Islamic Republic executed approximately 1,000 inmates, most of them non-violent drug offenders. President Hassan Rouhani, described by some as a moderate, oversaw an increase in the execution rate to levels not seen in more than two decades. And although the figures for 2016 appear to be well short of those for 2015, Iran retains its status as the nation with the single highest rate of executions per capita. And executions of non-violent drug offenders are evidently proceeding virtually unimpeded.
Various human rights organizations and opponents of the clerical regime keep tabs on these figures. On Saturday, one of them, the Human Rights Activists News Agency, uncovered two such executions that had been carried out in Parsilon Prison on January 20, at which time the Iranian judiciary also upheld death sentences for six other non-violent offenders.
Another non-profit organization, Iran Human Rights, reported that nine inmates had been executed in the few days leading up to February 20. The report also highlighted the apparent reason why some reports of executions do not emerge in the human rights activist community until weeks after their implementation. The nine executions that were carried out earlier this month were not formally announced by the judiciary, leaving it to fellow prisoners and opposition intelligence networks to uncover the facts.
The withholding of official records also leaves open the possibility that the execution figures for any given year are actually higher than those that have been announced by human rights groups and the United Nations. The same can be said about the judiciary’s implementation of other forms of corporal punishment, such as floggings and amputations, which have also made the Islamic Republic subject to extensive international criticism.
HRANA reported upon one recent example of this, noting that a 70-year-old man had been transferred to Urmia Prison to have his fingers amputated as a result of a robbery sentence handed down in absentia in 2008. Other recent reports have made mention of a woman who was to be blinded in one eye as punishment for attacking another woman with acid.
As uncertain as the figures may be for these sorts of punishments, the overall violence meted out to Iranian prisoners simply cannot be quantified, because there is a large number of entirely extra-judicial punishments including beatings and torture both before and after suspects are sentenced to prison terms. Another recent HRANA report pointed to a case in which a mentally ill prisoner had been beaten by two military officers and a member of the staff after being transferred to a hospital.
That report notes that the prisoner, Hanzeh Darwish, is a member of the Sunni minority, which is often subject to more severe punishment, and to outright persecution. The International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran reported last week that a leading Sunni cleric had expressed concerns to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei regarding reports that capital sentences were being expedited specifically for non-violent drug offenders who were also Sunni. This focused push has been viewed as part of the backlash against progressive efforts to reduce the prevalence of death sentences.
But the apparent emphasis on Sunni identity is also part of a broader pattern of persecution, which can be observed in instances of prosecution for much lesser “crimes.” As an example, HRANA notes that an Iranian judge recently sentenced four Sunnis to five years imprisonment on charges of acting against national security, on the basis of their having been seen jogging together. A previous judge saw no basis for prosecution, but his colleague saw fit to regard the incident as an act of illegal assembly, thus highlighting the often arbitrary nature of law enforcement in the Islamic Republic.