Mass Execution of Sunni Kurds Highlights Unchanged Attitudes Toward Death Penalty

Some human rights defenders have dismissed or at least called into question the prospect for this year’s figures to be regarded as an improvement in the country’s domestic situation. The lower rate of judicially mandated killings may instead be attributable to the fact that parliamentary elections and the Muslim holy month of Ramadan both took place during the first half of the year. Executions usually diminish or stop during these periods, but rebound afterwards.

Recent reports have seemingly lent credence to this interpretation of matters. Organizations and news outlets like Iran Human Rights and the Human Rights Activists News Agency have already confirmed multiple instances of mass executions taking place in the month of July and in the first days of August. For instance, a number of international news outlets including Reuters have seized upon the story that Iran executed as many as 20 Sunni Kurds on Tuesday, possibly after gaining convictions for many of those defendants on the basis of false and coerced confessions.

Reuters explains that these individuals were accused of being members of the organization Tawhid and Jihad (Monotheism and Holy War), and of being involved in violent dissent. Conflicting reports have led most outlets to simply report the death toll from this series of executions as being between 10 and 20.

The Iranian government claims to have identified at least 100 members of the militant group, many of whom have supposedly been arrested or killed in a series of clashes since 2011. The people in the present batch of executions were held accountable for specific set of killings and kidnappings, although it does not appear as though the judiciary precisely identified which individuals actually carried out which attacks. Authorities did, however, broadcast apparent confessions from some of the defendants, but it has been suggested that at least some of these were extracted under torture.

The International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran specifically emphasized the case of one individual named Shahram Ahmadi, who was hanged in the courtyard of Rajai Shahr Prison just before dawn on Tuesday. Although he provided authorities with a confession, he later told his lawyers and family members that he had been tortured. Those same people have since insisted that Ahmadi had never taken up arms and had in fact never been a member of Tawhid and Jihad. If this is correct, it would appear that Ahmadi was lumped together with members of the organization because he was a Kurd and had been known to distribute materials promoting Sunni Islam inside the Shiite theocracy.

The Iranian criminal justice system has a long history of this sort of guilt by association, putting people to death for tenuous connections to banned political groups, or for activities that were demonstrably non-violent. For instance, in 2014, Gholamreza Khosravi was hanged on the same charge as Ahmadi, namely “enmity against God,” for no greater offense than donating money to a satellite television network affiliated with the dissident group the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran.

In Ahmadi’s case, whether or not he had ever been armed he was not armed at the time of his arrest. Rather, he was shot while walking away from security agents, after he had left a mosque in Sanandaj. His subsequent death sentence seems arbitrary to human rights defenders like the International Campaign. Furthermore, Iran’s overall approach to enforcement seems similarly arbitrary in light of context like that which was provided by IranWire on Wednesday, in a report on Iran’s execution of “Salafist” groups, of which Tawhid and Jihad is allegedly one.

That report indicated that some of these groups, which consider other Muslims to be heretics, have been explicitly tolerated by the Iranian regime when their activities seemed to be in line with the regime’s broader interests. For instance, IranWire indicates that between 2003 and 2005, the Kurdish Salafists focused their attention on Kurdish political party called the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. It was only after Tehran ceased to see the Salafist presence as useful that a crackdown began and led to the sorts of mass executions that took place on Tuesday.

IranWire further adds that this is part of a larger pattern of the Islamic Republic tolerating or actively working with militant groups, even if their ideologies conflict with those of the Shiite theocracy. This trend came into renewed focus last month when the US Treasury Department instituted sanctions against three individuals believed to be simultaneously living in Iran and working for the Sunni terrorist group Al Qaeda.

Under different circumstances, such people might be subject to Iran’s death penalty. But their apparent freedom to operate inside the Islamic Republic demonstrates that Iran is willing to overlook its own harsh laws. Meanwhile, the execution of Sunni Kurds shows that when those laws are not overlooked they tend to be enforced very strictly and very callously. The International Campaign and the UK’s Guardian newspaper both noted that in the case of Shahram Ahmadi, his family was alerted of his imminent execution, but authorities did not give them sufficient time to travel to the prison for a final visit before he was executed. Instead, they were informed while in transit that they should go not to the prison by the morgue to retrieve his body.

Many previous stories have described similar treatment of other death row inmates and their families. Not only are family visits uncertain and inconsistent, so too is the entire process of implementing the death penalty. Human rights organizations often issue warnings of imminent executions when it is reported that prisoners have been taken from their cells and placed in solitary confinement. But this process is sometimes repeated several times, leaving prisoners never quite certain of when they are going to be hanged.

All of this goes to show that despite the lower figures for the first half of this year than last year, the regimes attitudes toward the death penalty and criminal justice do not appear to have changed. The Guardian notes that this topic remains of considerable interest to leading human rights organizations. It quotes a representative of Human Rights Watch as saying, “In 2016, Iran is yet again the regional leader in executions – at least 230 – while it continues to be a laggard in implementing illusory penal code reforms meant to bridge the gap with international standards.”

Apart from simple over-use of the death penalty and its application to cases involving forced confessions, Iran also deviates widely from international standards in its persistence in executing persons who were below the age of majority at the time of their offenses. In the midst of the mass execution at Rajai Shahr, the Iranian judiciary also carried out the execution of a man who was only 17 years old at the time of his arrest on the charge of raping another boy.

It is also interesting to note that Iran’s laws regarding rape make these sorts of cases implicitly untrustworthy in the absence of definite proof of the crime. On Tuesday, IranWire examined the country’s laws regarding sexual contact and pointed out that a man who rapes another man faces the death penalty, but in cases of consensual sex the “active” party receives 100 lashes while the “passive” party faces execution. Naturally, this makes it imperative for the “passive” individual to attempt to prove that he was raped, even if the sex was actually consensual.

Strangely, there is no legal provision for clemency in such cases, as there is in the case of murder. According to the Islamic legal principle of qisas, when a person is sentenced to death for murder, the family of the victim has the right to forgive the perpetrator and save him from the gallows, often in exchange for a payment of blood money. The Guardian points out that although the regime has been as committed to the death penalty as ever, there has been a clear trend toward forgiveness among the families of victims. This may be another contributing factor in the lower rate of execution this year, compared to last. And in any event, it is further evidence of an ideological gulf between the Iranian regime and the Iranian people..