Contrary to international standards, Iranian law allows for boys to be considered legally responsible at the age of 13, and girls at as young as nine. Consequently, the Islamic Republic is one of only five countries in the world that have been known to carry out death sentences on juvenile offenders since the year 2013. During this period, Iran itself has executed at least 42 such individuals, even though 2013 was marked by legal reforms that allow judges to use their own discretion in determining whether a youthful offender was sufficiently mature and fully aware of the consequences of his or her actions at the time of the crime.
In practice, few judges make use of this provision, and even when juvenile offenders’ cases are sent for review in line with Article 91 of the Islamic Penal Code, death sentences are almost invariably upheld. In most such cases, the review evidently emerged from sustained international pressure led by well-known human rights groups like Amnesty International. This pressure and the resulting review process have resulted in the delay of a number of juvenile executions. But then again, the judiciary has been known to impose such delays on its own, sometimes keeping death row inmates in prison for years after they have turned 18, in an apparent effort to defray some of the inevitable outcry.
Iran’s theocratic regime is well aware of its human rights obligations under international law. It has long since signed onto two documents – the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child – which specifically bar juvenile executions in all circumstances. However, the Islamic Republic has also unilaterally declared itself exempt from enforcement of any provisions that it considers to violate domestic laws that are grounded in its hardline interpretation of Islam.
Interestingly, though, that same regime has variously signaled its willingness to violate its own laws when it is politically advantageous to do so. The Zeinulabedini execution is tentatively scheduled to take place very soon after the end of Ramadan. In this way, the judiciary pays lip service to the traditional expectation that executions be halted during the Muslim holy month. But as Iran Human Rights Monitor reported in its summary of human rights issues for the month of May, at least one individual was hanged publicly before the end of Ramadan, contrary to the advice of leading religious scholars.
The same IHRM report notes that regime continued to showcase its lax applications of capital sentencing during the period in question. The judiciary passed a death sentence on 34-year-old Abdullah Ghasempour roughly one year after his arrest in May 2018, for setting fire to a base belonging to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ civilian militia, the Basij. The sentence apparently stemmed not from the arson itself but from the fact that Ghasempour conveyed footage of the incident to a media outlet affiliated with Iran’s leading opposition group, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran, or MEK. He was accordingly charged with “enmity against God,” “assembly and collusion,” and “membership in the MEK.”
These charges stand among a number of examples of political or religious crimes that are on the books in the Islamic Republic but are only vaguely defined, giving regime authorities the clear opportunity to apply them arbitrarily or capriciously. Such irregularities arguably undermine the limited reforms that were added to the penal code in 2013.
Article 19 ostensibly prevents juvenile death penalties, regardless of judicial perspectives on the maturity of the defendant, in the case of crimes less serious than murder. But preexisting features of the criminal justice system may allow non-violent offenders of any age to be declared enemies of God or threats to national security, and thus subject to the death penalty no matter the exact nature of their offense.
In this sense, legal reforms may be seen as having more of a public relations role than a practical role. The general, though by no means comprehensive ban on executions during Ramadan may serve this same type of role domestically. Meanwhile, Article 19 and similar reforms send a message to international human rights defenders regarding the regime’s willingness to change.
However, the pending execution of Danial Zeinulabedini might suggest either that Tehran is no longer concerned with defending its reputation abroad, or that it no longer expects to be taken seriously when claiming to have reformed. Although most juvenile offenders in recent years have been kept in detention for a period of years after receiving their sentences, Zeinulabedini faces the possibility of execution in the immediate aftermath of Ramadan.
He presently remains more than two months away from his 19th birthday, meaning that he would barely be eligible for the death penalty under international law even if he was inarguably guilty and his crime had been committed yesterday.