It is not often that in the world of human rights we celebrate positive news from Iran. However, on the 8 October, human rights defender and journalist Narges Mohammadi was released early from Evin prison, after spending more than 2000 days incarcerated in terrible conditions in a prison now rife with the coronavirus. It was Mohammadi who shared a cell with British Iranian dual national Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and who kept her strong through her ordeal. The #FreeNargesMohammadi campaign tweeted:
“In her spirit we demand freedom for all prisoners of conscience and an end to the death penalty.
The timing of her release coincides with the 18th World Day Against the Death Penalty on 10 October. Mohammadi was a prominent activist campaigning to end the death penalty for juvenile offenders in Iran. Her work was internationally acknowledged in 2009, when she won the Alexander Langer award and again this year with the award of the City of Paris medal.
Her advocacy to stop children facing the death penalty caused the Iranian authorities to silence her voice with a crippling prison sentence. Iran executes more juveniles than any other nation and has been condemned for this practice universally by UN bodies, the EU parliament and many NGOs and activist groups.
During Narges Mohammadi’s time in prison, the Islamic Republic of Iran executed five juveniles in 2016, another five in 2017, six in 2018 and seven in 2019. At least two child offenders were reportedly executed so far in 2020, while in March this year Danial Zeinolabedini, who was on death row, died of injuries received from beatings by officials in both Mahabad and Miandoab Prisons. In 2019, over 90 juveniles sat on death row awaiting their fate in prisons across Iran after death penalty sentences.
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child prohibit the death penalty for crimes committed by under 18 year olds at the time of the alleged crime. The UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran, Javaid Rehman, has published several reports calling on Iran to impose a moratorium on the death penalty and permanently prohibit death sentences for juveniles. Rehman reported that despite this, under Iranian law, the death penalty can be imposed against girls as young as 9 and boys as young as 15 lunar years for ‘qisas’ (retribution in kind) or hudud crimes (crimes for which punishments are mandated and fixed).
Rehman highlighted Iran’s failure to adopt change and noted his regret that,
“…during its universal periodic review, the Islamic Republic of Iran only partially supported 1 of 23 recommendations on the abolition of the death penalty for child offenders and only partially supported 2 of 39 recommendations on the abolition of the death penalty or its restriction to the most serious crimes.”
A year ago this month, a young woman, Zeinab Sekaanvand, was executed. Convicted of murdering her husband at age 17, Zeinab claimed she was a victim of domestic violence and abuse and had been forced to make a false confession while she was denied access to a lawyer.
The fate of Zeinab shows the deeply flawed process of Iranian justice. She died as the poster child of all that is corrupted in the system. The Special Rapporteur noted that according to the Penal Code, confessions extracted under duress or torture were prohibited and inadmissible before the courts, nevertheless the same Iranian Penal Code states that,
“if an accused person confesses to the commission of an offence, his or her confession shall be admissible and there is no need for further evidence”.
Although Iran has ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which gives the right to a defendant to be represented by their choice of lawyer, Zeinab is only one of the many who has suffered by not receiving that support or choice.
The theme of the World Day Against the Death Penalty this year is “Access to Counsel, a matter of life and death”. Vulnerable juvenile offenders are among those most in need of impartial legal representation and no more so than in Iran. With the release of Narges Mohammadi, let’s hope that she can add her voice once again to the call to cease the executions of young people in Iran once and for all, and that those who have offended are given fair trial, protected from forced confessions and given access to counsel so that it need never be a matter of life and death again.