The execution of juvenile offenders is a violation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, as well as Convention on the Rights of the Child, both of which have been signed by Iran. Nevertheless, Iran remains one of the only countries to continue the practice, and the Iran Human Rights report indicates that Tuesday’s execution was at least the third such incident in 2017. The report concluded by calling upon the European Union to “resume their pressure on the Iranian authorities in order to stop juvenile executions.”
Coming just days after Iranian President Hassan Rouhani was elected to a second term amidst promises of domestic reform and outreach to the international community, the story may be regarded as a stark reminder of the lack of progress that has been made during Rouhani’s first term, as well as the diminished international attention that has allegedly been given to human rights issues in Iran since the supposedly moderate president began pursuing a nuclear agreement with six world powers led by the United States.
Although the nuclear negotiations did result in an agreement in July 2015, it has been widely criticized, including by leading figures in the Trump administration and the US president himself, for extracting only tepid concessions from the Islamic Republic while allowing tens of billions of dollars’ worth of sanctions relief that could potentially finance terrorist activities and the repressive activities of organizations like the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.
These potential negative effects may have been overlooked by the previous presidential administration on the basis of an assumption that the Iranian regime would begin down a path of moderation in the wake of the agreement and under the influence of the Rouhani presidency. The Iranian president’s campaign for his first term included a number of progressive sounding promises, one of the most prominent of which was the release of Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, the leaders of the 2009 Green Movement who have been under house arrest without formal charge or trial for the past six years.
Excuses for Inaction
Rouhani took no recognizable steps toward fulfilling this promise after winning office. But with his reelection campaign approaching, he blamed other elements of the regime for holding back his earnest efforts to loosen the restrictions on political expression in the country. These excuses were quickly reiterated following his reelection, as was pointed out by the Center for Human Rights in Iran on Wednesday. The organization’s report on Rouhani’s first post-reelection press conference characterized it as abandoning altogether the promise of freedom for Karroubi and Mousavi.
This effort to pass of responsibility on other branches of the government comes after Rouhani’s campaign claimed that unilateral action on this point would be made easier if he was reelected with a stronger mandate in the May 19 elections. Rouhani very clearly accomplished this goal. Although opponents of the Iranian regime, chiefly the National Council of Resistance of Iran, have insisted that the electoral participation figures are grossly inflated, there does not appear to be any doubt about Rouhani’s victory. The official figures put Rouhani’s share of the vote at 57 percent, while his leading opponent, the hardline cleric Ebrahim Raisi, received 38 percent.
While this is a considerable margin of victory, Al Monitor claimed on Thursday that the conservative political base has been galvanized behind Raisi after remaining fractured for a long time. This could help that faction to maintain its strength and influence, thus lending some credence to Rouhani’s claims of being stymied from outside the administration. Furthermore, as the Al Monitor article notes, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei signaled implicit support for Raisi’s candidacy, a fact that is made especially significant by the fact that the supreme leader is the ultimate authority in all matters of state.
Of course, Rouhani’s comments about the Green Movement leaders and other reformist issues failed to acknowledge this political reality. This apparent dishonesty may cast doubt on Rouhani’s claims about his own intentions, as well. And some commentary on the elections, including that from the NCRI, has emphasized Rouhani’s longstanding role as a regime insider. The NCRI’s main constituent group, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran, organized an electoral boycott in the run-up to May 19, and its campaign included slogans describing Rouhani as an “imposter.”
Longstanding Trends, Still Neglected
Tuesday’s execution is an early indicator that this characterization of the president may remain just as justified in his second term as it did throughout his first. That is to say, it is the continuation of established trends, insofar as the administration has made no recognizable moves toward curtailing the use of the death penalty, either against juvenile offenders or in general. Rouhani has overseen approximately 3,000 executions during his first term, which included a period during which more hangings were carried out than had been in any equivalent period for 25 years.
This figure guarantees that Iran will retain its status as the country with the world’s highest rate of executions per capita. And this trend is attributable to the constant use of capital punishment for non-violent drug offenses, as well as some political and religious “crimes.” Politically motivated arrests have seen a dramatic surge at various times during Rouhani’s first term, including in the weeks leading up to the election. Furthermore, there are already signs that that crackdown is continuing now that the election has concluded.
The Center for Human Rights in Iran reported on Thursday that a scholar and newly elected reformist member of the Hamadan city council was facing the possibility of a death sentence over comments that he made about the Prophet Mohammad. “The merciful prophet was secular and Islam is the same as liberalism,” Javad Giahshenas said in a speech at Islamic Azad University. The country’s Basij civilian militia subsequently called for him to be disqualified from running for political office, ousted from his position as an academic staffer, and prosecuted for “insulting the prophet,” which is a capital crime in the Islamic Republic.
In a statement released a day before the May 19 elections, Giahshenas sought to clarify the comments in order to dispel the criticism surrounding his arrest. “On the subject of liberalism, the root of the word comes from liberty, which means freedom,” he said. “But our interpretation of freedom does not include debauchery and sinful behavior.” Iranian media reported on Wednesday that he had been released on bail of over 15,000 US dollars. It remains to be seen what consequences he will face, and whether the supposed reformist victories in the election will have a significant impact on this or other cases.
In the current political climate, there are certainly large numbers of activists attempting to intercede with the government and the judiciary, but there is little to suggest that these efforts are meeting with success. In and around the month of March, it was widely reported that there had been a rash of hunger strikes in Iranian prisons, some of them lasting multiple weeks and inspiring civilian protests over prison conditions and questionable arrests. But even after considerable pressure, the regime has generally only made the concessions that were absolutely necessary in order to save the life of the hunger striker.
This trend may still be ongoing, as evidenced by another report from the Center for Human Rights in Iran, this one pointing to the case of Esmail Abdi, a teachers’ rights activists whose hunger strike has surpassed three weeks, during which he has been demanding an end to the prosecution of peaceful trade union activists on national security charges. A petition for Abdi’s release has gathered some 15,000 signatures, but authorities have remained silent on his case even as his health condition deteriorates badly.
The cases of Giahshenas and Abdi are certainly predictable instances of political persecution, insofar as they represent the hardline authorities’ struggle against both another political faction and civilian activists. But given the nature of the theocratic regime, religious persecution is also a trend to be watched in the wake of Rouhani’s reelection. And with long-term effects yet to be determined, it remains true that at least for the time being the familiar trends are going strong.
The Human Rights Activists News Agency published a report on Monday indicating that authorities in Mazandaran Province were engaged in an ongoing battle to confiscate homes and agricultural lands from the members of the Baha’i religious minority in the village of Rowstan Kooh, in line with the nationwide efforts by the government to punish the community for its faith. The authorities allege that the lands were traditionally forest land, which needs to be reclaimed, but they have refused to provide images or documentation to support the claim.
This lack of documentation is reminiscent of the well-established practice of denying Baha’is access to higher education after claiming that would-be students’ files are incomplete but providing no details on the nature of the problem. Equally commonplace are instances of the forced closure of Baha’I businesses, as well as the outright arrest of members of the faith. And the Center for Human Rights in Iran plainly stated on Tuesday that “The persecution of the Baha’i religious minority in Iran has grown worse under President Hassan Rouhani.”
The same allegation may plausibly made about the country’s treatment of other religious minorities such as the Sufi group known as the Gonabadi Dervishes, as well as other groups caught up in the crackdowns that are still being prosecuted by the Revolutionary Guards, the Intelligence Ministry, and other authorities. And in light of Rouhani’s statements about the Green Movement leaders and related matters following his reelection, there is little grounds for confidence in the reversal of current trends during his second four-year term.