On Thursday, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights issued a statement condemning the execution, earlier that same day, of a juvenile offender in the Islamic Republic of Iran.
The incident stood out as a late addition to the country’s catalogue of human rights abuses for the year 2020. Three other juvenile offenders had been executed by the Iranian judiciary earlier in the year, and Thursday’s case seemed to reaffirm the clerical regime’s rejection of foreign criticisms of this practice and of other widely reported irregularities in Iranian jurisprudence.
Mohammad Hassan Rezaiee was 30 years old at the time he was hanged, but he had been on death row for more than a decade as a result of allegations that he had fatally stabbed a man when he was 16 years old.
International human rights law forbids the use of the death penalty in cases where the defendant was under 18 years old at the time of the offense. But Iran routinely ignores this principle despite being a signatory to covenants that affirm it.
The actions of Western governments and international human rights groups have at times compelled Iranian courts to delay these types of death sentences and to order their reevaluation by the courts responsible for them.
However, it is extremely rare for those sentences to be overturned. Much more often, they are simply implemented at a later date, after global attention to them has subsided and the judiciary has declared the defendant to have been sufficiently mature at the time of the alleged crime.
Despite Tehran’s refusal to abandon the practice of juvenile executions, the delays suggest that the regime is somewhat sensitive to international criticism. That sensitivity arguably accounts for the slow pace of juvenile executions, in comparison to the pace of execution for adult offenders.
That same sensitivity is implied by Rezaiee’s age at the time of his execution. Juvenile recipients of a death sentence are almost always kept behind bars until after they turn 18, and sometimes for much longer than that, on the expectation that international outrage will be more subdued if the victim is no longer a child.
Despite these efforts to mitigate outrage, Tehran remains so committed to the practice of juvenile execution that human rights activists are able to bring attention to more than one such case during almost every calendar year. Meanwhile, there remains a constant backlog of juvenile offenders on death row in Iranian prisons, with the current estimate being around 80 individuals.
The overall pace of executions in the Islamic Republic has slowed during the past few years, but not enough to threaten Iran’s status as the country with the world’s highest rate of executions per capita.
According to the latest year-end report from the Human Rights Activists News Agency, Iran implemented at least 236 capital sentences in 2020 and added at least 95 individuals to the population of death row.
The details of those sentences cast some doubt on the staying power of the recent decline in the number of annual executions. The Iranian parliament ostensibly forced a reduction in 2017 by passing a law that abolished the death penalty for certain non-violent drug offenders.
But that law was partially neutered by higher authorities upon review, and the implementation of new sentencing guidelines has proven to be more-or-less voluntary for each judge.
Some notorious hanging judges have since begun ignoring the new guidelines, and now HRANA’s analysis indicates that approximately nine percent of the executions in 2020 were for non-violent drug offenders.
Astonishingly, the parliament now seems poised to reverse some of the progress it has made toward a more internationally palatable perspective on the death penalty. Iran Human Rights Monitor reported in December that the vice president of the parliament’s Judicial and Legal Commission had announced the body’s intention to draft a bill that would allow for the death penalty to be applied to a new category of a non-violent offense.
The official, Hassan Norouzi, identified the new law as being based on “the Fifth Book of the Islamic Punishment Law which deals with punishment of betting in the cyberspace.”
Norouzi went on to say that the bill outlines a range of “tough punishments” and specifies that repeated instances of online gambling and “lack of remorse will be considered by judges as corruption on Earth which is punishable by death.”
Already, that vague charge is applied very liberally in cases involving behavior that is deemed contrary to the religious or political ideology of the Iranian regime. In this sense, the charge of “spreading corruption” stands alongside other, similarly vague charges like Mohabreh, or “enmity against God,” which is routinely used to justify the death penalty for members of opposition groups such as the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK).
According to HRANA, Mohabreh alone was the basis for about four percent of the death sentences that were implemented in Iran during 2020. And this figure arguably lends additional credence to recent warnings from the likes of the UNHCR, Amnesty International, and the Center for Human Rights in Iran regarding an “increase in the application of the death penalty in political cases.”
The latter organization offered a warning along these lines in the context of a report on the sudden execution of three prisoners who were members of the Baluchi ethnic minority and also the Sunni Muslim religious minority. They were allegedly among a substantially larger group of inmates who were transferred to solitary confinement on December 18, giving rise to widespread fears that they were in imminent danger of execution.
Incidents like this one are a common occurrence in the Islamic Republic, and even when fears of execution are not immediately realized, the transfers sometimes result in prisoners being held incommunicado for long periods of time, thereby muddling international accounts of which death sentences have been implemented. It is important to note that HRANA’s report of a year-end total of 236 executions is only an estimate, and is likely to be revised upward as prisoners and activists leak more information to the public regarding executions that were not formally announced by the Iranian judiciary.
The typical secrecy of that judiciary’s proceedings also cast some uncertainty upon more specific figures like the number of juvenile executions, the number of political executions, and even the number of executions of persons who hold European citizenship or have other intimate ties to the West.
Such forced confessions are frequently the basis for the politically motivated executions that are allegedly escalating under present circumstances. They were cited by Iran Human Rights in reporting on the case of one recent victim of this phenomenon, Abdulhamid Mir-Balouchzehi, whose family was also beaten during the home raid that led to him being accused of Mohabreh and “acting against national security.”
This sort of dual pressure on the accused and his family is reminiscent of Navid Afkari, the renowned wrestler who was executed in September after Iran’s Supreme Court upheld a death sentence that was handed down as a result of his participation in a 2019 protest movement.
In actuality, the sentence was based on a charge of murder, but video surveillance footage showed that Afkari could not have been responsible for the death in question. This made little difference in his case because he and his brothers had both been subjected to torturous interrogations which yielded recordings of confessions that were aired publicly on state media.
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
This sort of miscarriage of justice is a familiar sight in the Islamic Republic and has already been repeated at least once. Iran Human Rights Monitor reported that a 32-year-old man named Shaker Behrouz was subjected to a trial on December 9 and handed a death sentence in a fabricated murder case.
The report noted that the family of the alleged murder victim, an Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) member named Mamel Mohammadi, personally rejected the accusations against Behrouz and stated that they were willing to testify in his favor.
The family’s objections have apparently been silenced, at least in part, by threats from authorities, yet 12 other residents of the village where the murder took place have gone on record as saying that Behrouz was in his shop at the time and could not have possibly committed the crime.
None of this appears to be of any consequence to the proceedings, since Behrouz, like so many other defendants in capital cases across Iran, is being scapegoated on account of his identity and political affiliations.
The December 9 death sentence is actually the second to be handed down for the same man, with the earlier one coming in September and being based on unsubstantiated allegations of “armed insurgency” plus the “crime” of “membership in a Kurdish opposition party.”