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Iran: Regression on death penalty restrictions leads to more executions

December is the traditional holiday period and New Year signalled a time when the world was glad to leave 2020 behind. However in Iran, at least 11 people have been executed in the last three weeks. Eight were executed in various prisons across the country between 19 and 26 December 2020, and three were executed together on 3 January 2021. Perhaps most controversially, 30-year-old Mohammad Hassan Rezaiee, was put to death on 31 December 2020 for a crime he committed at aged just 16, prompting international condemnation.

Execution of juvenile offenders

Mohammad Hassan Rezaiee had been on death row for 14 years after allegations that he had fatally stabbed someone when he was 16 years-old. Rezaiee’s confession to the crime was reportedly obtained through torture, amongst other concerns over lack of rights given to him for a fair trial.

On the day of his execution, Ravina Shamdasani, a spokesperson for the United Nations Office for the Commissioner of Human Rights released a statement condemning the Iranian government. The statement highlighted that Iranian authorities “failed to pursue available legal avenues under the Iranian Penal Code to grant Mr. Rezaiee a retrial.” The statement expressed dismay on the “appalling practice” by Iran, as Rezaiee is the fourth confirmed execution of a child offender in 2020.

The execution of child offenders is prohibited under international law, under the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Iran is a party to, states:

“Sentence of death shall not be imposed for crimes committed by persons below eighteen years of age and shall not be carried out on pregnant women.”

As Rezaiee was 16 at the time of allegedly committing the crime, he should not have been executed despite being a legal adult at the time of death.

In the statement given, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet strongly condemned the execution and that it went ahead despite repeated calls to halt Razeiee’s death and OHCHR engagement with the Iranian government.

Iran executed several juvenile offenders last year. On 18 April 2020, Majid Esmailzadeh was executed in Ardabil prison in northwest Iran, arrested and sentenced to death in 2012 for a alleged murder he committed when he was under 18. On 21 April 2020, Shayan Saeedpour was executed for a fatal stabbing committed when he was 17-years-old. He was convicted of murder and sentenced to death in October 2018, despite being a minor, and his death setenced was upheld in 2019. A third child offender, Sina Mohammadi, was executed on 23 April 2020 for murder charges. There are reportedly at least 90 juvenile offenders on death row in Iran.

Widening death penalty usage

In the first six months of 2020, Iran executed a record number of 136 prisoners. Whilst the total figure is unconfirmed, Iran Human Rights Monitor (IHRM) estimates at least 255 people were executed by the end of 2020. Only 54 of those executions were announced by official sources. At least six juvenile offenders and eight women were among those figures, and one person was hung in public.

A global review of the death penalty by Anmesty International released in April 2020 named Iran the “second most prolific executioner after China, where the exact number of people put to death remains a state secret.”

The Iranian regime put at least 251 people to death in 2019. However, the report noted that the “lack of transparency makes it difficult to confirm the real total number of executions – which may be far higher.” The IHRM Monthly Report seconded this, finding that several of those put to death are ethnic or religious minorities whom the Iranian regime oppresses. Those include Iranian Kurdish political prisoner Mostafa Salimi, hung on 11 April 2020, and two Kurdish men Abdul Vahed Faizi and Ramyar Mokhless both executed on 24 April 2020. Abul Baset Dahani, a Baluch ethnic minority, was hung on the same day.

On 31 December 2020, three Sunni political prisoners were executed: Hamid Rastbala, Kabir Sa’adat Jahani and Mohammad Ali Arayesh. They were arrested and charged for “baghi” (armed rebellion) through membership in the Al-Furqan party group and membership in the Sunni National Solidarity Front. Neither their families or lawyers were made aware of the executions in advance, despite Iranian law requiring the government to notify lawyers of scheduled executions of their client 48 hours beforehand in order to grant families the right to visit their condemned relative. Other political prisoners executed in the first half of 2020 include Abdolbaset Dahani, Shahram Baygan, Hedayat Abdollahpour, Diako Rasoulzadeh, Saber Sheikh Abdullah, Mostafa Salehi, and Navid Afkari, all on charges of Moharebeh, “waging war on God” or “corruption on Earth”.

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.”

The use of the death penalty against juvenille offenders, ethnic minorities and political prisoners is seen alongside an increase in its use for minor offences and non-violent crimes. IHRM reported in December that “the the Vice President of the parliament’s Judicial and Legal Commission had announced the body’s intention to draft a bill that would allow for the death penalty to be applied to a new category of a non-violent offense.” Hassan Nourozi, a spokesman with the Majlis Legal and Judicial Committee, said the bill outlines a range of “tough punishments”and specifies that repeated instances of online gambling and “lack of remorse will be considered by judges as corruption on Earth which is punishable by death.”

The move to use the death penalty for non-violent crimes has already been seen with drug and alcohol offences. In April 2020, Soleiman Mirzayi and Vahed Rostamzadeh were executed for drug related offences in Borujerd and Hamedan prisons, respectively. IHRM estimates at least 26 people were executed on drug-related charges in 2020. In July 2020, 55-year-old father of two Morteza Jamali was executed in the Central Prison of Mashhad for drinking alcohol. Other non-violent crimes such as theft are also being used as means to execute people. Shahrouz Kazemi Noureddinvand was executed on 30 September 2020 for Moharebeh (waging war on God) for robbery of a jewellery shop, despite no one being hurt during his attempt.

The Iranian regime has made it clear that the smallest of crimes is enough for their brutal execution practices. This further contradicts the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Article 6, which reserves the death penalty for the most series of crimes.

“In countries which have not abolished the death penalty, the sentence of death may be imposed only for the most serious crimes in accordance with the law in force at the time of the commission of the crime and not contrary to the provisions of the present Covenant and to the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. This penalty can only be carried out pursuant to a final judgement rendered by a competent court,” it states.

The government of Iran continues to ignore international calls to stop its use of the death penalty, especially agaisnt juvenille offenders, political prisoners who are punished for freedom of expression, ethnic and religious minorities, and those who commit minor offences. With several executions having already taken place in the first few days of 2021, international organisations and human rights groups should continue to apply pressure and campaign for Iran to comply with international law. Governments around the world should also participate in this, pursuing diplomatic measures alongside UN bodies and human rights groups.

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