Not on the Agenda: 500 Executions in less than 10 Months in Iran

October 10, 2013

World Day Against the Death Penalty is not just a symbolic date. Every year, more countries acknowledge the cruel, inhuman,and degrading nature of capital punishment and its doubtful effectiveness in crime prevention, and fewer people die. Iran, however, remains among the world’s top executioners, regardless of the new political landscape and presidential promises of moderation and respect of citizenship rights.
The fact that the Islamic Republic’s authorities have broken the necks of hundreds of human beings in a few months has hardly drawn attention, signaling a lack of interest that will not encourage the new Iranian leadership to address the problem.

So far, in 2013, the Abdorrahman Boroumand Foundation has collected reports of more than 500 executions, and the real number may be higher. In other words, every day in 2013 at least two individuals have been killed, many on drug-related charges.  During the week of September 23rd, when President Rouhani was making headlines in New York, more than 30 people were reportedly executed.  As far as it is reported in the news, the victims are, for the most part but not only, alleged drug offenders, many with minor possession charges.
 
Among those executed in 2013 were Arman Mohammadi, 18 years old, charged with participating in a murder at the age of 12 (1) and held in the Dizelabad Prison in Kermanshah for the past 6 years; Mohsen K., charged with storing 530 grams of crack cocaine in Esfahan; Jamshid, charged with possession of 24 grams of hashish and 440 grams of crystal in Qazvin; and an unknown man charged with transporting and storing 1,122 kilograms of opium, as well as dealing arms. The heavy handed and arbitrary enforcement of these ultimate and irreversible death sentences has had little impact on Iran’s decades-long struggle with drug abuse, trafficking, and violence. Executions are not only ineffective in solving society’s ills, but they legitimize violence and vengefulness. 
 
The execution of an un-named 18 year-old on 18 September 1913 in the Seyfabad neighborhood of Kazerun is a case in point (2). According to the local media, the young man had been convicted of murder at the age of 14 and sentenced to death. The execution was carried out this past month, once he reached the age of 18. Ironically, this is the Iranian judiciary’s way of honoring its commitment to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which prohibits capital punishment for offenses committed by persons below the age of 18. But this is not the main point here.
 
In Iran’s Penal Code, there is no equality before the law when it comes to murder, as the decision about who lives and who dies is left to the family of the murdered victims. In this case, clearly, the teenager was not deemed worthy of living, and this decision had consequences.  During Arman’s funeral, an enraged relative promised to kill two relatives of the murdered victim in revenge and, the next day, two bodies were discovered, and three people went missing. Clearly, the execution of this teenager has not reduced criminality in the Seyfabad neighborhood of Kazerun, but more importantly, was this young man guilty in the first place?
 
In most cases, the available information does not allow us to attempt an assessment, but the process leading to the conviction of alleged criminals has enough flaws to require international attention and immediate reforms to the laws and practices in Iran. The right to defense is a good example. In Iran, the presence of a lawyer during interrogations is not mandatory. The law allows judges to deprive detainees from the assistance of a lawyer during the entire judicial process, based on the “confidential nature of the issue,” their assessment that the presence of anyone other than the detainee will “cause corruption,” and in matters of national security.
 
In practice, a lawyer’s absence during interrogations in political or criminal cases is the rule rather than his or her presence. Text Box: On 14 July 2011, Mr. Ramin                             Ya’qubi was arrested by the police at a                             house party in Dorud, a city in Lorestan                             Province in western Iran. He was transferred                             to Police Station No. 11 and kept there                             because he could not afford bail. His mother                             visited him and stayed with him until 2:00                             a.m. He was in good health. At 8:00 a.m. the                             next  day, the agents of the Criminal                             Investigations Office proceeded to beat him                             prior to his appearance before the judge.                             The judge ordered that he remain in                             detention for one week. In prison, his                             health rapidly deteriorated to the point                             that he finally died. His family filed a                             complaint against the agents of the Criminal                             Investigations Office but did not receive a                             response (Jaras, 7 September 2011). Mr.                             Nasser was arrested in Khuzestan Province                             for stealing several pigeons. Before being                             forced to put his fingerprints on a prepared                             confession, the  interrogator sat on him                             while he was folded in two and then                             suspended him in the air with a stick under                             one arm and one leg, causing him an injury                             of the spine. After his release, Mr. Nasser                             filed a complaint against the Ramhormoz                             Judicial Police, but the complaint never                             reached a conclusion. Those responsible were                             merely transferred from the Criminal                             Investigations Office to another section                             (Etemad Melli, 22 April 2007). A former                             prisoner of conscience was arrested by the                             Criminal Investigations Office sometime in                             2006 in Masjedsoleiman, a city  in Khuzestan                             Province in southwestern Iran. Charged with                             forgery and consuming alcoholic beverages,                             he was severely tortured: officers beat him,                             burnt his fingertips, and hanged him by his                             arms for an extended period of time.                             According to the report, as a result of the                             hanging, the detainee’s arms were to be cut                             off from the shoulders (Advar News, 25                             October 2006). Generally, detainees are left at the mercy of police investigators of the edarey-e agahi (3) who, in their effort to extract confessions admissible in court, use torture methods that they can justify as a lawful religious punishment for not telling the truth (4). Such punishments and their outcomes, serious injuries and even deaths, are sometimes reported and seldom punished. In such circumstances, ordinary criminals, as well as ethnic and religious minorities, are particularly at risk. Severe beating and torture are routinely used in the case of political prisoners, as well, particularly in areas with a high density of ethnic and religious minorities; and they take lives.
 
As a candidate and a president, Mr. Rouhani has committed to draft and turn into law a bill of citizenship rights that would provide protection for citizens and equal rights for minorities. But the President has not been specific regarding the areas the citizenship rights will cover and has stressed repeatedly that Iran’s constitution guarantees citizens’ rights adequately.
 
 The Islamic Republic’s constitution discriminates, however, against Iranians, based on gender and religion. It also has references to religion that may make it impossible to eliminate the Hadd punishment from interrogation rooms or to limit the judges’ ability to ignore the law based on their religious competence. Hence the need to keep these issues among current priorities.
 
The high number of executions, torture, and impunity have not, so far, made it into President Rouhani’s speeches, nor in the interviews carried out by the international media. Reported negotiations with Iran, except for brief mentions of well-known political prisoners, do not have a human rights focus. No doubt, the nuclear dispute and other deadly regional conflicts must be addressed urgently, but Iran is also bound by international human rights conventions. The international community should not minimize those obligations by leaving the Iranian government to address human rights issues if and as it pleases.
 
The new opening and the Iranian leadership’s clear effort to improve Iran’s image abroad -- to do away with sanctions and isolation -- presents an opportunity for meaningful changes in Iran’s legal system, which could protect thousands of individuals on death row. This window of opportunity should be used before it closes, and the international community should challenge the Islamic Republic on the issues of due process of law and the death penalty. At a minimum, Iran should make the presence of lawyers during interrogations mandatory and should prohibit all corporal punishment during police investigations.
The execution of more than 500 people in Iran in 2013 and the violations of due process of law may not pose a direct or immediate security risk to countries at odds with Iran but they contribute to the perpetuation of a culture of violence that has an impact well beyond Iran’s borders. Further, ignoring the unacceptable and leaving out of the dialogue the universal values enshrined in the international conventions is morally wrong and send the wrong message about their relevance to the Iranian leadership and, most importantly, to the Iranian people.