Iran: It’s Time to Scrap Outdated Laws Exposing Children to Torture

September 5, 2015

 
 
A group of thieves including children publically humiliated
in Mashhad, Iran. July 3, 2011

On September 5, 1991 the Islamic Republic of Iran signed the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). By doing so it committed to respect international norms with regard to the treatment of children and improve its laws and practices to comply with its obligations and ensure that children are protected from abuse and violence. More than twenty years later, the U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child (the Committee) continues to express concerns about Iran’s limited progress and transparency. Iranian law and practices expose children to a range of human rights violations including executions as well as corporal punishments such as amputation and flogging, which amount to torture and have serious long term consequences.


The CRC covers all individuals below the age of 18. In the List of Issues published on July 15, 2015 in relation to Iran’s fourth and fifth periodic reports, the Committeeinquires about “measures taken to ensure that all legislation defines a child as a person under the age of 18 years and that all minimum age requirements including the age of marriage and the age of criminal responsibility, conform to the Convention both in law and practice.”

More than 100 individuals may have been executed for crimes committed under the age of 18 since the year 2000. 2014 was particularly deadly with 15 child-offenders executed

The Committee’s concern, shared by many members of civil society, experts and officials in Iran, is understandable considering the gap separating Iran’s laws and the CRC requirements. In Iran’s civil and penal codes, the maturity age and the age of criminal responsibility is fifteen lunar years for boys and nine for girls.[i] However, under other laws, individuals are not considered mature enough to vote, drive, or own property before the age of 18. The minimum age of criminal responsibility widely varies around the world and there is no international consensus on what it should be. There is less uncertainly however, when it comes to recognizing that juvenile offenders should not be executed for crimes they committed before the age of 18 and that corporal punishments such as flogging amount to torture and should be banned. In Iran both acts are sanctioned by law.

In recent years, based on official and non-official sources, Iran has consistently ranked first in the world for the number of executions per capita. The judicial process leading to executions lacks the minimum standards of due process or the necessary respect for the dignity of the accused.

In its Comment No 10, the Committee has stressed the importance for children who are in conflict with the law to participate effectively in their trial. Children thus need “to comprehend the charges, and possible consequences and penalties, in order to direct the legal representative, to challenge witnesses, to provide an account of events, and to make appropriate decisions about evidence, testimony and the measure(s) to be imposed.”[ii] In Iran, adults and children alike are interrogated, and sometimes tried, without the presence of an attorney and are denied the right to a proper defense.

According to data collected by the Abdorrahamn Bouroumand Foundation (ABF), more than 100 individuals may have been executed for crimes committed under the age of 18 since the year 2000. Mostly for murder. 2014 was particularly deadly with 15 child-offenders executed. Four among them were accused of murder at the age of 14, including Hassan Gholami, reportedly executed in Shiraz on 2 March 2014. Executing juvenile offenders is a clear violation of Article 37(a) of the Convention, even if, as is currently the practice in Iran, the offenders are imprisoned and executed once they reach the age of 18.

 

Salar Shadizadi is at imminent risk of execution. He was sentenced to death
at the age of 15 in Rasht.
(Source: Iran Human Rights )

Flogging is another cruel and degrading punishment that Iran has not been willing to eliminate but that receives little international attention. Based on ABF’s research, at least 149 offenses are punishable by flogging in Iran’s Penal law.  Based on the information collected from Iran’s official and semi official sources and interviews, ABF found that flogging sentences ranging from 10 to 228 lashes, most often between 50 and 100, were issued for child offenders aged 14 to 17, mostly in the provinces. Minors have been detained, intimidated, humiliated and flogged for prostitution, theft, robbery, illicit relationships, non-marital sex, homosexuality, selling or drinking alcohol, and being at a party with the opposite sex. There are no published statistics on the number of juvenile offenders arrested every year.


Flogging is implemented arbitrarily and unevenly across the country. The law leaves much to the discretion of the court resulting in unfair and discriminatory practices. Authorities in big cities, where the number of offenders is high are reported to be less likely to implement flogging, in particular for first time offenders, than those in smaller cities. Further, in many reported cases, officials including those carrying out the arrest, judges, and those implementing sentences accept payments from the offender to look the other way, show leniency, or ensure that the implemented lashes do not hurt. In practice, according to experts and witnesses interviewed by ABF, judges are inconsistent in their treatment of child offenders. Some are more lenient on young people, while others are particularly harsh in sentencing them.

The harshness of the sentence in the case of 16-yar old Atefeh Sahaleh Rajabi, executed in August 2004 for an illicit relationship in Neka, Mazandaran, drew public attention in Iran and internationally. It showed how far a judge can go regardless of the age of the offender. Atefeh’s story includes poverty, a broken home, possible mental disability, and an angry judge who made a point in hanging her himself. She had been flogged 4 times in previous years – 100 lashes each time.

Arman, 17, and Reza were sentenced by a court in Anar (Kerman) to 70 lashes and 9 years in prison for buying stolen pistachios

According to Iranian authorities, a significant number of juvenile offenders are arrested for theft and many steal because of poverty and hunger. Again, the treatment of offenders reportedly varies depending on whether the crime takes place in Tehran and other big cities, where offenders are reportedly rarely flogged, or in small towns where there are reports of corporal punishment.

In August 2008, Arman, 17, and Reza were sentenced by a court in Anar (Kerman) to 70 lashes and 9 years in prison for buying stolen pistachios. The sentence was carried out in public for Reza. The Public’s protests and pleas from Arman’s mother convinced the authorities to stop the flogging after a number of lashes.

In February 27, 2013, a judge in Birjand (Khorasan) sentenced a 14-year old youth, a first time offender, for stealing 4 pigeons. Khabar Jonub newspaper reported on the trial:
“The defendant in the case stated: ‘This is the first time I have committed theft and I request a reduced sentence.’ At the close of the trial, the judge found the 14-year-old youth guilty of stealing four pigeons, and, the plaintiff’s retracting his complaint and the return of the birds notwithstanding, sentenced the defendant to six months imprisonment and 30 lashes, pursuant to Islamic Penal Code Article 656.”
During the trial, it became clear that the plaintiff, an adult man, was carrying an illegal activity that is keeping pigeons near an airport. The judge saw fit to show leniency and not punish the adult in this case.

The frequency of flogging for drinking and partying is difficult to assess. The fact that most individuals interviewed or questioned by ABF often know of an unreported case of flogging since the punishment was introduced after the 1979 revolution testifies to the fact that flogging sentences are seriously under-reported. To believe the head of Mazandaran judiciary who reported the implementation of 10,815 flogging sentences in 8 month in 2012, the numbers are significantly higher in that province which borders the Caspian Sea and where Iranians vacation and drink contraband alcohol.

Cases such as that of 17-year old M. R. Who was sentenced to 80 lashes for drinking alcohol in Birjand (Khorasan) in June 2014, are often dealt with immediately by the arresting authorities.  Arrests for drinking and partying frequently occur at night. The police detain offenders and a judge on call issues the sentence rapidly without the intervention of a lawyer. Very few of these cases make it to juvenile courts or draw the media’s interest. Families prefer to hide in part out of social stigma and in order to expedite the punishment and end their children’s detention.

Cases of teens such as that of 16 year-old Marzieh F. (July 2009- Esfahan) and unknown 15 year-old teen (September 2011) who were sentenced to 99 lashes for an illicit relationship are even more difficult to document, because there are no names and details in the press reports and because families are not eager to talk. Victims and their families struggle with the trauma and the humiliation and shame resulting from the treatment of the offenders during the interrogation and flogging. Detention and punishment in such cases can also lead to additional punishment for the children by families.

The impact of flogging on children can be devastating and life changing. Ali Esma’ili, an Afghan immigrant who lived in Iran in the 1980s, received 70 lashes along with his

The flogging had a major effect on my life. I became a very fearful person and wasn’t able to defend my rights anymore.”

friends for drinking alcohol in the summer of 1988. He told ABF about his experience:

“The lashes started from the tip of my toes and went all the way up to the back of my neck. With the first few lashes, I felt an extremely sharp pain in my back, but I didn’t feel anything after that.
After they were done, two agents who were assigned to each of us, dragged us back to the cell. They threw our clothes in front of us and left us there… We slowly put our clothes back on and just crawled to a corner like dead people. None of us felt physically well, and my friends couldn’t even walk. The pain from the flogging was so great that we couldn’t even stand …The flogging had a major effect on my life. I became a very fearful person and wasn’t able to defend my rights anymore.”

Siavash and his girlfriend also had a traumatizing experience when they were respectively 17 and 15 years old in 1997 in Gonabad and were reported by a neighbor and punished for having sexual relations:

“The female officer who had brought my girlfriend in, and the interrogator, sat across from us and said: “You have to tell us whatever went on between you two. They started asking questions about our sexual relations. In a way they wanted to know what we did in bed. They would ask things like “How many times? Why did you do it? What did you do after you had sex,” … I got angry. This was psychological torture and they wanted to hurt us emotionally. I screamed: “This is none of your business. You wanted to get a confession that we were together. What do you care about the details?” My girlfriend was crying the entire time. … Still, they continued: “If you give a complete confession, and admit that you’re guilty, then we can write down that you love each other and you’ll get you a lighter sentence.”

"[In] the courtroom, Judge Asgarnejadi looked at us both and said: 'Are you the fornicators?'… Do you know that you have violated God’s law? You must answer to God’s Messenger. You must answer to the Koran.' … The trial was over in fifteen minutes and neither one of us had an attorney.

This episode left its mark on us and changed both our lives tremendously

The Koran was recited before the sentence was implemented. Then they proceeded to flog me with a whip that was made of four interwoven leather strands. The lashes started at my neck and went all the way down to my shin; they went up and down. I was in a deplorable state. …The wounds on my back did not heal for an entire month. ..Those days were like nightmares. I kept asking myself: 'Was she whipped the same way too?'… I was sad for my parents for having caused them so much trouble and heartache.

This episode left its mark on us and changed both our lives tremendously. My girlfriend was from a well known family and her father owned a hospital in Gonbad. For fear of sullying their good name, her family sort of kept her under house arrest for a year, and she had to study at home. Because of the pressure I had endured, I failed the college entrance exams that year. For two years, the memories of the events at the detention center and the prison… strongly tormented me."

 

Busted in a party. They are humiliated for having done nothing wrong.

Siavash Safavi, was arrested in 2001 and sentenced to 80 lashes in Babolsar General Cour for walking on the beach with girls, 15 and 18 years old, who were not related to him. He told ABF:

“We were taken before the judge, without the benefit of legal representation. The judge said “they have reported that you were engaged in unlawful [anti-Shari’a] conduct,”…We didn’t know what we were supposed to say. That’s why I asked him, “Sir, what does anti-Shari’a mean?” He explained: “It could mean any [unlawful conduct] ranging from walking on the street to going into a house. Anything other than adultery can be anti-Shari’a.” The session lasted less than ten minutes.”

Siavash was lucky enough to run into a corrupt judge and have the means to pay a bribe to reduce their sentence, including that of the 15 year-old girls, to 30 lashes. “When they were carrying out the sentence, I felt humiliated. I must note that this episode made me fearful of initiating any relationship.

Corporal punishment that amounts to torture or cruel, inhuman, and degrading punishment, including flogging, is prohibited under international law, and countries cannot justify it by invoking domestic law.[iii] According to the Committee on the Rights of the Child, “corporal” or “physical” punishment means “any punishment in which physical force is used and intended to cause some degree of pain or discomfort, however light.” Any such punishment is, in the view of the Committee, “invariably degrading.”

The UN General Assembly and the UN special mechanisms have tried to address such violations multiple times and have expressed deep concern regarding the ongoing and recurring instances of torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment in Iran, including flogging.

In January 2005, the Committee on the Rights of the Child commented and made recommendations regarding corporal punishment in Iran, which it stressed is “totally incompatible with article 37 (a) and other provisions of the Convention. ” Expressing regret that “under the existing laws, persons below the age of 18 who have committed a crime can be subjected to corporal punishment and can be sentenced to a variety of types of torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment and punishment”, it asked Iran to:

“Take all the necessary measures to ensure that persons who committed crimes while under 18 are not subjected to any form of corporal punishment and to immediately suspend the imposition and the execution of sentences of amputation, flogging, stoning and other forms of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment and punishments.”

At the time of the ratification of the CRC, Iran entered a reservation noting that “[T]he Government of the Islamic Republic of Iran reserves the right not to apply any provisions or articles of the Convention that are incompatible with Islamic Laws and the internal legislation in effect.” Iran’s reservation does not meet the requirement for reservations based on the Human Rights Committee’s General Comment no 24, which indicated that reservations to human rights treaties should “refer to a particular provision of the Covenant and indicate in precise terms its scope in relation thereto.” [iv]

The reservation, which Iran interprets to allow implementation of death sentences and corporal punishment for child offenders, is broad and imprecise and defeats the purpose of the Convention.  In its General Comment No 8 (2006), the Committee does not recognize governments the right “to apply physical violence to individuals for offences. Such a right would be tantamount to sanctioning State-sponsored torture under the Charter and contrary to the very nature of this human rights treaty.”[v]

Further, the Committee rejects unequivocally faith-based justifications for corporal punishment. While recognizing that the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (art. 18) upholds Freedom of religious belief it notes that “practice of a religion or belief must be consistent with respect for others’ human dignity and physical integrity” and “may be legitimately limited in order to protect the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.”

 

In 2005, the Committee expressed concern “at the existing poor quality of the rules and practices in the juvenile justice system, reflected, inter alia, in the lack of statistical data, the limited use of specialized juvenile courts and judges, the low age of criminal responsibility, the lack of adequate alternatives to custodial sentences, and the imposition of torture, cruel and inhuman punishment and in particular of the death penalty.”[vi] The Committees recent List of Issues indicates again a lack of statistical data and information on the situation of children, government policies, and their outcomes.

Iran has taken some positive steps in recent years towards addressing some of the Committee’s concerns. The new Penal Code and Code of Criminal Procedure provide for punishments other than flogging for individuals below the age of 15 and open the door to lawyers during interrogation for juvenile offenders except in cases involving national security, which include political offenses. It also makes it possible for judges to avoid issuing flogging or death sentences to children between the age of 15 and 18, if the judge believes they lack the maturity to understand the gravity of their act.

The Judiciary has however reacted to the new laws by proposing amendments to undermine the limited improvements and has not committed to fully implement the new laws. This lack of clarity and safeguards leaves children dependent on the good will of judges, some of whom have repeatedly shown to have none.

Iran has still a long way to go to fulfill its obligations under the CRC by establishing justice procedures for children that are “focused upon rehabilitation of the child rather than on punishment or retribution.” It is hard to see how degrading punishments such as floggings and executions can help children’s rehabilitation.

Voices opposing harsh punishment for juvenile offenders and calling for change in the age of criminal responsibility and special training and dedicated police forces for child offenders[vii]  are not rare in Iran. Over the years, experts, officials, clerics, lawyers, and civil society members have noted the failure of corporal punishment as deterrent and most importantly, in helping the rehabilitation of juvenile offenders[viii]. But punishments amounting to torture for children remain on the books. What seems to be missing is the political will to do the right thing by eliminating these punishments and ensuring that children’s dignity and well being are protected by the state rather than endangered by its laws.

Abdorrahman Boroumand Foundation
Washington DC
September 5, 2015

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[i] Note 1 of the article 1210 Iran’s Civil Code (1981); articles 146 and 147 of Iran’s 2013 Islamic Penal Code
[ii] Paragraph 46, General Comment No.10
[iii] In his first report to the United Nations General Assembly, on 30 August 2005, Manfred Nowak, then Special Rapporteur of the Commission on Human Rights on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, called on states to “abolish all forms of judicial and administrative corporal punishment without delay.” He pointed out that the term “lawful sanctions” in article 1, paragraph 1, of the Convention against Torture must be interpreted as referring both to domestic and international law. On the basis of the review of jurisprudence of international and regional human rights mechanisms, the Special Rapporteur concludes that “any form of corporal punishment is contrary to the prohibition of torture and other cruel inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment” and “States cannot invoke provisions of domestic law to justify the violation of their human rights obligations under international law, including the prohibition of corporal punishment.”
[iv] Human Rights Committee, General Comment No. 24 CCPR/C/21/Rev.1/Add.6 (1994), para.19.
[v] CRC/C/GC/8* 2 March 2007 Original: ENGLISH COMMITTEE ON THE RIGHTS OF THE CHILD Forty-second session Geneva, 15 May-2 June 2006 GENERAL COMMENT No. 8 (2006) The right of the child to protection from corporal punishment and other cruel or degrading forms of punishment (arts. 19; 28, para. 2; and 37, inter alia)
[vi] 28 January 2005, Unedited version, CRC/C/15/Add.254, paras.44, 45, 46, 47(a,b), 71 and 72(b). http://www.endcorporalpunishment.org
[vii] Article 31 of the new Code of Criminal Procedure