The NCRI/Christian Today report points out that in one of the latest examples of this crackdown, at least nine Iranian Christians were arrested on Christmas Day. The arrests appear to have had no justification other than the individuals’ practice of their faith. Indeed, Christians are regularly subject to arrest for gathering in one another’s homes to worship as part of an underground house-church movement. Consequently, prior arrests have been known to occur en masse, with major festivals like Christmas providing a particular opportunity for crackdowns by security forces.
The report also notes that on the same day, at least nine Iranian prisoners were executed. In fact, Christmas Day appears to have been both preceded and followed by a series of executions. Considering that the Iranian judiciary’s tendency to publicly reject international standards of behavior, these latest incidents arguably reinforce the notion that Iran does not respect the sanctity of “foreign” religious traditions, even those that are traditionally grouped together with Islam as being based on worship of the same monotheistic God.
Although Iran would hardly be expected to halt executions on Christmas, it does demonstrate a marked slowdown of hangings during the Iranian holy month of Ramadan. This year, the figures during that period were drastically lower than the annual average, but in a somewhat unusual move they did not halt altogether. This is in keeping with the overall increase in number of executions which has been observed since the inauguration of President Hassan Rouhani.
The Christmastime surge of executions may help Iran to easily clear the anticipated 1,000-person mark for the year 2015. Final figures will not be provided by human rights organizations until late January, at the earliest. But the partial year estimates have been lingering around 800 executions for several weeks, even as reports of further executions have gradually accumulated.
Those estimates will surely increase in light of such information as that provided by Iran Human Rights in its recent report on hangings in the city of Qazvin in northwest Tehran. The report indicates that eight individuals were hanged for drug offenses in that prison alone on Christmas Eve. And this followed upon the execution of eight others in the same prison two days earlier. Such mass executions are typical of the Iranian judiciary’s methodology, which includes strict enforcement of the death penalty for non-violent offenders, whose crimes do not rise to international standards regarding when capital punishment is arguably justified.
Legislation is pending in the Iranian parliament to limit the types of drug cases to which the death penalty can be applied, but there is some question about how much support this measure really has and whether it would be allowed to come to a vote by leading clerics.
In the meantime, it is not strictly true that persons charged with drug crimes will receive no leniency from the Iranian criminal justice system, only that they will most likely receive it for reasons other than judicial compassion or progressive changes to the law. IranWire issued a report on Tuesday regarding the general situation of drug offenders on death row, and it emphasized that persons caught transporting less than 100 grams of drugs receive the death penalty almost invariably, whereas major traffickers tend to receive leniency simply because they are capable of paying large bribes and otherwise exploiting influence over courts and prisons.
But looking at the death penalty more generally, progressive moves seem equally if not more unlikely, particularly in context of other recent developments. For instance the judiciary recently decided to uphold the death penalties for several juvenile offenders upon review by higher courts. These incidents arguably serve to reject the principles expressed by Amnesty International and other activist groups that had brought those cases to light in the first place.
And not only has Iran continued to stand by its use of the death penalty in spite of that activism, it has also continued to apply the death penalty to individuals whose offenses cannot be realistically identified as crimes.