The incident took place on the same day that four others were put to death in Rajai Shahr Prison alone, signifying a probable acceleration of the implementation of capital punishment throughout the country.
The apparent increase in executions only serves to further safeguard Iran’s status as the nation with the highest per-capita rate of executions in the world. No other country exceeds the Islamic Republic in terms of the raw number of death sentences carried out each year. Iran also leads the world in terms of death sentences meted out and implemented for persons who were under the age of 18 at the time of their crimes.
As a signatory to both the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Iran is formally barred from this practice under all circumstances, but the Iranian judiciary routinely dismisses that provision by saying that it conflicts with the religiously-based laws of the Islamic Republic. The same international agreements also technically bar Iran from other activities that nonetheless remain commonplace, including the execution of supposed criminals whose offenses do not rise to an international standard for the “most serious crimes.”
Wednesday’s executions may have included at least two offenses of this type. Of the four men hanged at Rajai Shahr, two had been convicted of murder, while the other two had been accused of “enmity against God.” This vague, political charged was originally established so as to apply only to armed insurrection against the Iranian regime. But in practice, the charge is known in Farsi as “Mohabareh” has been applied to a wide range of individuals deemed to be a threat to the theocratic system. This includes supporters of the leading Iranian opposition group, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI, Mujahedin-e Khalq or MEK) – even those whose support is limited to financial donations.
It is unclear what, if any, actual activities were undertaken by the two men executed on Wednesday which justified their death sentence. And Iran’s state media is little help since it often fails to report not only the details of capital cases but also the very fact that an execution has taken place. As such, various human rights advocates have taken it upon themselves to gather information about executed prisoners, relying on fellow inmates and other witnesses to the killings.
But this still leaves an incomplete picture of the regime’s record when it comes to executions, and many of the relevant human rights defenders have warned that the figures for the past several months could still grow, or may never be known in their entirety. Even the figures for 2018 may be incomplete, but it is known that the judiciary carried out at least 285 capital sentences during that 12-month period. Respective to Iran’s population, this represents the highest rate of executions in the world.
Looking at the entire period since Hassan Rouhani assumed the presidency in 2013, at least 3,800 people have been put to death, for an annual average of around 630 per year.
Although Tehran has taken no measures to halt politically motivated executions or the execution of juvenile offenders, non-violent drug offenders comprised such a large proportion of the total number of executions that a change in sentencing policy was seen as a relatively easy way to shift the narrative concerning the regime’s human rights record.
No Mitigating Factors
In the last week of September, at least 11 individuals were executed in the course of just two days. Of these, eight were identified as drug offenders. Four of those men were also put to death en masse in Rajai Shahr Prison, along with two men who had been convicted of murder. One of the 11 individuals was also female, having been sentenced to death for allegedly killing her husband.
Leila Zarafshan was reportedly the 95th woman to be executed in the Rouhani era. Her case may also be indicative of the Iranian judiciary’s categorical disregard for all mitigating factors in the presence of murder accusations. Iran Human Rights Monitor raised some questions about the circumstances surrounding her crime when it pointed out that, statistically, most Iranian women who murder their husbands are victims of abuse.
According to Iran Human Rights, Zarafshan was suffering from a mental disability. Sources close to Zarafshan indicate that this may have affected her decision-making and behavior, thereby diminishing her responsibility in the eyes of any other modern legal system.
But under Iran’s system, Zarafshan was never given a forensic medical exam, even though she had previously been hospitalized for mental illness. This is reminiscent of the legal neglect that is on display in many cases that lead to the execution of juvenile offenders.
The Iranian penal code allows for boys to be held legally responsible and thus executed at as young as 13. For girls, the limit is only nine.
In recent years, numerous juvenile death penalties have been sent back to court for review on the basis of claims of diminished responsibility, often in response to an international outcry. But in virtually all such cases, the original death sentences have been upheld after judges insisted that the defendant had been sufficiently mature to be eligible for the death penalty.
In many such cases, the sentence is questionable according to international standards, regardless of the age of the defendant. This is partly because criticism of juvenile execution often overlaps with criticism of a chronic lack of due process in Iranian court proceedings. And it is partly because a large proportion of the murder charges levied against juveniles involve young people who were killed as part of a fight that may have included numerous participants.
Under other modern legal systems, these types of cases might be expected to lead to charges of second or third-degree murder, or to charges of manslaughter. But Iran’s criminal justice system does not acknowledge different degrees of murder, and so every crime that leads to a victim’s death is treated as a capital case, with the potential for a single principle perpetrator to be executed.
Part of a Larger Trend
In March of this year, a cleric by the name of Ebrahim Raisi was selected to take over as the head of Judiciary, despite protests from those who were away of his long history of human rights violations, including his prominent role in the execution of 30,000 political prisoners in the summer of 1988. Many of the critics warned that his appointment would signify increased repression and violence by law enforcement and prosecutors. And subsequent executions have only been part of the evidence supporting this view.
Other signs include the hostage-taking of dual and foreign nationals, the harassment of persons who are related to activists living outside the Islamic Republic, and systematic violence against protests and organizers inside the country.
Meanwhile, the Iranian-British dual national Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe wrote her own letter pleading for early release from a five-year prison sentence she was given after being accused, in April 2016, of being “one of the leaders” of an “infiltration network” that Tehran has long alleged to be operating throughout Iranian society. No evidence has been presented to support that allegation.
The 40-year-old charity worker’s letter coincides with the news that her daughter Gabriella, whose passport was confiscated when the pair were trying to return to Britain at the time of the arrest, will soon leave to begin kindergarten in her home country. “I have no hope or motivation after my baby goes. There is no measure to my pain,” Zaghari-Ratcliffe wrote as part of a message that also called attention to how she had been put “on-sale” by the Iranian regime by being held as a sort of bargaining chip as Tehran pursues the repayment of old debts and other concessions from the West.
At least 17 dual and foreign nationals are known to be held in the Islamic Republic today.