The demonstrations turned violent after members of the Sufi order known as Gonabadi dervishes assembled in response to speculation that their leader Nour Ali Tabandeh was slated for arrest as part of the government’s crackdown on political activists in the wake of nationwide protests in December and January. By some accounts, security forces did attempt to gain access to Tabandeh’s home but were blocked by the masses of dervishes. In addition to the three deaths attributed to Salas, two members of the basij civilian militia were killed in a separate stabbing incident. Three hundred dervishes were arrested in the midst of the clashes.
Despite Salas denying that he willfully killed the three police officers, there appears to be no dispute about whether he was behind the wheel of the bus that also injured 30 others. He now has 20 days to appeal the verdict, but if the death sentence stands it will be among the minority of death sentences in Iran that arguably rise to the level of the “most serious crimes” for which the death penalty is deemed acceptable under international human rights conventions.
But Iran, consistently the nation with the world’s highest rate of executions per capita, has frequently thumbed its nose at some conventions, even those codified in documents to which Iran is a signatory. By executing non-violent drug offenders and certain types of political prisoners, the Iranian regime has rejected the international limits regarding the severity of capital crimes. Additionally, Iran is among the small handful of countries that continues to execute juvenile offenders in defiance of the United Nations’ absolute prohibition on the practice.
In its recent annual report on the death penalty in the Islamic Republic, the website Iran Human Rights noted that at least five juvenile offenders were executed in the year 2017. Each incident spurred international outcry and letter-writing campaigns by human rights organizations, yet Iran’s commitment to the practice appears to only be intensifying. Three more juvenile offenders have already been put to death since the start of 2018.
On the other hand, Iran Human Right called attention to the possibility that domestic and international pressure are proving effective in the case of death penalties for non-violent drug offenders. Last year, the Iranian parliament passed legislation which lightened the minimum sentences for certain crimes in that category. This led to speculation that death sentences could be commuted for thousands of prisoners, although it also raised questions as to whether Iranian courts would fully implement the changes.
Data on this subject appears inconsistent so far. The report by Iran Human Rights finds that 65 fewer drug offenders were executed in 2017 than in 2016. This represents a reduction of about 22 percent. However, few drug-related death sentences have actually been commuted and there were reports last year which indicated that the execution dates had been moved up for some of the people who might have been spared by the legal change, especially Sunnis and members of other minority groups.
Additionally, Iran Human Rights notes that the judiciary seems to have compensated for the reduction of drug-related executions by carrying out more hangings of persons convicted of murder. Overall, at least 517 inmates were executed in 2017, and this is comparable to the figures for the previous year. Naturally, those figures do not account for extrajudicial killings or executions that the government managed to conceal from the public. Of the 517 known executions during the past year, 406 of them were not officially announced.
Extrajudicial killings may prove to be an even more serious issue than before, once statistics for the current year begin to be tabulated. Violent crackdowns on perceived threats to the clerical regime are a familiar phenomenon, but the recent targeting of environmental activists indicate that these may have further expanded in scope. Several such individuals were arrested last month and one of them, the Iranian-Canadian Professor Kavous Seyed-Emami, died suspiciously while in police custody.
Prison officials attempted to claim that Seyed-Emami had confessed to spying for Western governments and then committed suicide, but their subsequent efforts to silence his family and prevent an independent autopsy suggest that there has been a cover-up. That conclusion is made stronger by the fact that the regime has made virtually identical claims about a number of people who have died in police custody, especially since the mass protests in January.
As reported by the Center for Human Rights in Iran on Thursday, a slightly different cover story has been applied to the latest suspicious death, that of nursing student Taleb Basati, who was arrested for taking photographs and video of the protests. His arrest reportedly took place at his home on February 18 as security forces continued to round up persons linked to the demonstrations or to anti-government activism in general. His body was released to his family on February 25, after which authorities asserted that his death had been the result of a stroke.
In view of the fact that Basati was only 26 years old, it seems unlikely that he would have suffered a stroke unless it was brought on by other factors, such as torture. As with other deaths, including that of Seyed-Emami, the deceased student’s family was cautioned against speaking to the media, asking questions about his death, or requesting an autopsy. Sources indicate that Basati’s death certificate did not specify a stroke but referred only to head trauma.
CHRI identifies Basati as the fifth person to die in police custody in two months. But the National Council of Resistance of Iran has determined that at least 14 people have died while being tortured in police custody since the start of protests in late December. Early this month, the NCRI identified Ghobad Azami of Kermanshah Province as the 14th victim. His family was reportedly told that he too had committed suicide in prison.