By Edward Carney
Iran’s judiciary responded on Tuesday to the widespread outcry regarding the latest incidence of the Islamic Republic violating international law with the execution of persons who were under the age of 18 at the time of their alleged crimes. This practice is conclusively banned by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child, both of which Iran has signed. Yet the Islamic Republic remains one of the only countries in the world to still carry regularly with such executions.
The latest victims of that practice have been identified as Mehdi Sohrabifar and Amin Sedaghat. Both were hanged on April 25, a day after being transferred to a new prison without explanation. It appears that neither of the boys was informed of his death sentence ahead of time, and both were flogged before being sent to the gallows. The pending execution was also reportedly kept secret from their families, who were given an opportunity to visit the prisoners after the transfer but were still not informed of the death sentence until after it had been carried out.
This somewhat unusual level of secrecy may have been intended to compensate for the judiciary declining to adhere to its usual practice of deflecting some domestic and international backlash by keeping juvenile death row inmates in detention until they have surpassed the age of 18. In the case of Sohrabifar and Sedaghat, both boys were still 17 when they were executed for crimes they are alleged to have committed when only 15. However, the judiciary initially sought to conceal this fact by keeping the death sentences secret, and then later by simply denying multiple reports regarding the boys’ ages.
According to Iran Human Rights, judiciary spokesman Gholamhossein Esmeili even went beyond denying the specific details of this case, in an apparent effort to cast doubt upon all reports of Iran’s juvenile executions. “Juveniles cannot commit these kinds of crimes,” he declared in a press conference. Accordingly, Esmeili also insisted that Sohrabifar and Sedaghat were above the internationally recognized age of majority not only when they were hanged last month but also when they supposedly committed rape and robbery two years earlier.
The judiciary’s claims spurred predictable rebuttals, including those which cited the two youths’ legal documents in order to demonstrate that they were indeed young teenagers at the time of both their arrest and their execution. Mahmood Amiry-Moghaddam, the director of Iran Human Rights, also challenged the Iranian regime to explain why it refuses to make the practice of juvenile execution illegal, “if people below the age of 17 or 18, as Mr Esmeili says, cannot commit serious violent crimes.”
Previously, Tehran has acknowledged the juvenile status of persons who were condemned to death, but has insisted that they were sufficiently “mature” at the time of the crimes to justify capital punishment. Iranian law allows for children to be held legally responsible at as young as 13 if they are boys, and as young as nine if they are girls.
At various times over the past several years, the implementation of juvenile death sentences has been delayed and the cases reviewed, apparently in response to pressure from international human rights groups and foreign governments. But in almost every case, the sentence has been upheld and ultimately carried out. The latest estimates indicate that 100 juvenile offenders have been put to death in Iran since 1990, but the aforementioned practices of secrecy and denial suggest that the actual number could be significantly higher.
At the same time, the judiciary’s newest talking points insisting upon the impossibility of violent crimes among youthful offenders, it seems as if the regime may now be committed to the claim that the number is effectively zero. But assuming that the judiciary cannot conceal the evidence of such executions being carried out, Esmeili’s talking point threatens to lend credence to claims about the potential innocence of some of the young defendants.
Those claims have certainly been made in the case of Sohrabifar and Sedaghat, on account of their having been beaten in custody and systematically denied due process. In condemning the executions last Friday, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet stated that they were “particularly outrageous because both boys were reportedly subjected to ill-treatment and a flawed legal process.” The boys initially denied all charges, but were detained for two months during which confessions may have been extracted using torture.
In any event, the worldwide illegality of juvenile executions is clear regardless of the nature or the veracity of the charges against them. Yet Iran shows no sign of compromising on this issue, and may in fact be ramping up the practice. Iran Human Rights Monitor notes that there have been unconfirmed reports of a third such execution having already taken place this year. By comparison, only three juvenile offenders are known to have been executed in the entirety of 2018, and all of them had been held in prison until an age of majority.
Iran’s reputation for juvenile executions is an outgrowth of its approach to the death penalty in general. Only China puts more criminals to death, and when researchers control for population Iran consistently secures the title of the country with the world’s highest rate of executions. This was true last year even though the Iranian judiciary achieved a significant reduction by vacating the death penalty for many non-violent drug offenders. But the regime’s commitment to this legal reform is coming into doubt at the same time that its commitment to juvenile executions seems firm.
IHRM reported on Tuesday that four alleged drug criminals had been executed in Arak Central Prison on a single day. If these killings mark the resumption of ultra-hardline drug policies, it would not come as a surprise to many people who are familiar with the Iranian judiciary. In March, that body came under the control of Ebrahim Raisi, a conservative cleric with a long history of human rights abuses, including a leading role in the execution of approximately 30,000 political prisoners in 1988. His appointment by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei was widely condemned, as well as being viewed as a likely precursor to even worse crackdowns and abuses across the Islamic Republic.
At the end of April, Raisi in turn appointed Ali Alghasi-Mehr as the general prosecutor for Tehran. As the Center for Human Rights in Iran explained on Tuesday, “Alghasi-Mehr has taken an extremely hardline approach to criminal justice” throughout his career, “including by advocating public executions and amputations as a means of punishment.” What’s more, the new general prosecutor has defended ignoring not only international human rights documents but also Iran’s own established legal practices for the sake of prioritizing executions.
The rate of executions in the Islamic Republic would no doubt be even higher than it is if not for the Islamic practice of qisas, which allows victims’ families to forgive a condemned criminal and vacate his or her death sentence in exchange for “blood money.” But last August, Alghasi-Mehr specifically called for the death penalty to be carried out on nine men “even though they have been pardoned by the victims’ family.”
In June 2015, Alghasi-Mehr also claimed that there is public support for public execution, another practice that Iran insists on continuing despite condemnation from human rights groups both at home and abroad. Critics of public hangings tend to describe them as having intimidation as their primary role. And the escalating practice of such intimidation would be in line with what is generally expected on the basis of ongoing trends and the recent changes in leadership of the Iranian judiciary.