The sectarian divisions between these two countries dates back at least to the advent of the Iran’s Islamic revolution, but the situation has gotten noticeably worse in recent months. In January, Saudi Arabia executed a Shiite dissident cleric, leading to renewed Iranian accusations of sectarian persecution within the Sunni kingdom. After an Iranian mob attacked and burned the Saudi embassy in Tehran, the Saudi’s severed diplomatic relations with Iran, and tensions have remained high ever since.
The execution of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr has been cited by Iran alongside various other incidents to make the case that Riyadh is the driving force behind regional sectarianism. But Iran is well-known for ignoring criticisms of its human rights record, and this ignorance is used to promote a one-sided view of such issues. In the case of Iranian-Shiite sectarian conflict, there are arguably more examples of Iran’s ongoing participation in the conflict than there are of Saudi Arabia’s.
Sunni’s are disproportionately subject to execution in the Islamic Republic, whether for non-violent drug offenses, political activities, or crimes in which the death penalty is actually recognized as a justifiable alternative by defined international standards. And this situation has evidently persisted in the wake of Iran’s criticism of the Saudi’s for their Shiite minority.
On Monday, the Human Rights Activists News Agency reported that 20 Sunni death row inmates had been taken en masse from their cells in Rajai Shahr prison and moved to undisclosed locations. The transfer of prisoners to solitary confinement generally precedes their executions, although in many cases prison authorities have been known to take prisoners to and from solitary several times prior to the execution being carried out. In any event, the mass removal of Sunni prisoners raises the possibility that it may be followed up by a mass execution and what amounts to a symbolic crackdown on the religious minority.
Of course, the executions of these 20 men or any sub-group of them would also be in keeping with more general patterns in the Iranian criminal justice system. Leaving aside the particular demographics of death penalty recipients, Iran is consistently the country with the highest per-capita rate of executions in the world. On Monday, the National Council of Resistance of Iran added to the HRANA report by noting that 52 additional individuals had been taken to await implementation of their death sentences in Greater Tehran Prison.
Although no information was immediately available about other demographic commonalities among these inmates, the NCRI did report that all of them were under 32 years old. Furthermore, a separate report by the NCRI indicates that plans are currently underway for the Iranian regime to execute at least one individual who was only 15 years old at the time of his crime. Such executions are plainly in violation of international standards and human rights documents that Iran itself has signed. Yet Iran remains among only a handful of countries that continue to put minor offenders to death.
At the same time that the above reports highlight the momentary human rights crisis regarding Iran’s overuse of the death penalty, it also calls into question recent speculation that the problem may have improved this year, compared to the last. According to the NCRI, 55 people were executed in Iran just between July 11 and July 27. This is more than a fifth of the 250 executions that Iran Human Rights previously reported as having taken place during the first half of 2016.
That report indicated that the figure for last year over the same period was a staggering 700. However, the same report already raised doubts about the significance of the difference, noting that execution rates usually slow down tremendously during Ramadan and national elections, both of which took place during the first half of the current year.