It was reported last week that the Iranian judiciary was moving quickly to execute a wrestler by the name of Mehdi Ali-Hosseini, approximately five years after he was first arrested on a charge of murder.
His trial alleged that the killing was premeditated even though it reportedly occurred as part of a spontaneous brawl. In this sense, the prosecution appears to have misrepresented the case in order to more safely guarantee a capital sentence. This is evidently a common practice in the Islamic Republic, which consistently maintains the world’s highest rate of executions per capita.
That record persists even though the country has been given some credit in recent years for a decline in the absolute number of executions. This can be partly attributed to a change in sentencing laws which allows judges to consider an alternative to the death penalty in cases of non-violent drug trafficking, which traditionally comprised the majority of all executions.
However, since going into effect less than two years ago, the new sentencing law has been selectively applied and has arguably fueled the expansion of existing disparities in the number of capital sentences executed for religious and ethnic minorities, as opposed to Persian Sunnis.
Meanwhile, selectiveness in another area of Iranian jurisprudence seems to account for some portion of recent years’ decline in the actual implementation of death sentences. In cases like Ali-Hosseini’s, where there is an identifiable victim other than the state, that victim’s family has the opportunity to “forgive” the accused and vacate the death sentence, usually in exchange for a payment of “blood money.”
It has previously been reported that this forgiveness has grown more prevalent, although it is not clear whether this is the result of a cultural shift or rising levels of poverty which make blood money more valuable to some families than the perception of justice.
In any event, Ali-Hosseini’s life presently depends upon the willingness of his victim’s family to apply the principle known as “Qisas” and direct the judiciary to spare him from his scheduled hanging.
That schedule has actually been pushed back for the express purpose of giving the defendant an opportunity to seek this form of pardon. Initially, it was announced on January 9 that he would be executed the next day, but Ali-Hosseini was then given an additional week to appeal to his victim’s family.
In the meantime, however, activists from throughout the world are appealing to the Iranian judiciary on his behalf. There does not appear to be any claim that Ali-Hosseini is innocent of the crime he’s been accused of, or that he was tortured into providing a false confession.
However, these are familiar features of other high-profile cases in the Islamic Republic, one of which has come to be associated with Ali-Hosseini’s case by virtue of the fact that both men were competitive wrestlers and received support from the Iranian athletic community after being sentenced to death.
The previous case, that of Navid Afkari, garnered extensive attention from the international community because of credible allegations that authorities had tortured not only the defendant himself but also his brothers, in order to secure confessions and incriminating statements regarding a murder that it was later shown Afkari could not have committed.
The exculpatory evidence was never considered, and Afkari’s execution moved forward last September while many of his advocates condemned the Iranian regime for what appeared to be a politically motivated hanging.
The previous year, Afkari had taken part in protests during a period of nationwide, anti-government unrest. It is widely believed that he was arrested on that basis and that the murder charge was levied against him after the fact when authorities determined they could place him in the general vicinity of the place where a security guard was killed.
Death-row #politicalprisoner #NavidAfkari from #Shiraz prison:
"I wrote a letter to judicial officials & said I'm not a murderer. The forensic report, eyewitness testimonies, & evidence proved I was tortured. But, they're looking for a neck to fit their noose" pic.twitter.com/9w8QVUH9sc
— IranNewsUpdate (@IranNewsUpdate1) August 31, 2020
However, as the later details of his torture and televised false confessions suggested, the real purpose of this charge was to justify the execution of a celebrated, high-profile athlete whose death would likely be recognized as a warning to ordinary citizens throughout the country.
Although few details of Afkari’s case have been replicated in Ali-Hosseini’s, critics of Iran’s execution record are largely convinced that the forthcoming hanging is also intended in large part to intimidate the public.
This sentiment was expressed, for instance, by Ellie Cohanim, an Iranian-born official in the U.S. State Department official who fled with her family at the time of the 1979 revolution.
“The Iranian regime must be held to account for their vile human rights abuses and their attempt to cling to power through execution,” Cohanim told Fox News early this week before criticizing European allies for a comparatively soft approach to Iranian affairs.
While the European Union publicly took an interest in the case of Navid Afkari, neither it nor the United Nations have sanctioned the Islamic Republic for moving forward with the killing in the face of widespread international condemnation.
Sporting organizations like the International Olympic Committee and United World Wrestling have similarly refused to follow through with any concrete measures recommended by activists as punishment for Iran’s use of champion athletes as a tool of public intimidation.
This is presumably part of the reason why international attention was so quick to focus on the Ali-Hosseini case after his execution was reported to be imminent. Although the circumstances of his case are very different from Afkari’s, it arguably represents a second chance for Western governments and international organizations to exert pressure on the Iranian regime over a range of underlying issues.
Criticisms from the U.S. State Department may be comparatively ineffectual in the case since the U.S. also ranks high among all nations for the use of capital punishment. But officials like Cohanim certainly have grounds to urge the nations of Europe toward more concerted action, given that they have by and large outlawed the death penalty and levied severe criticisms against those who abuse it.
In the first two weeks of 2021, the Islamic Republic has already carried out at least 13 executions, and Ali-Hosseini is just one of many for whom capital punishment may be implemented at any moment.