As the Islamic Republic of Iran’s nuclear program and regional security dominate headlines, an ongoing crisis of the right to life continues to claim lives in holding cells, prison yards, and streets. The people of Iran are relevant to finding a sustainable solution to the international community’s security concerns. But they need space to organize and speak-up without risking their most basic human right: the right to life.
“Respecting the right to life has never been the strong suite of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s leaders. Now more than ever, the international community must show Iranian officials that human rights, including the right to life, are of central concern - not merely a footnote to a list of security issues” said Roya Boroumand, Executive Director of the Abdorrahman Boroumand Center for Human Rights in Iran (ABC).
In the present Iranian year (starting March 20, 2020) the Iranian judiciary, notorious for its lack of transparency and contempt for due process, has put to death at least 229 people, according to data collected by ABC. 14 were put to death on political charges. 174 had been convicted of homicide, while ten were executed for a sexual crime, two for robbery, and one for both a sexual crime and robbery. 27 people were executed for drug crimes only. Seven women, 26 ethnic Baluchs, 15 Kurds, and four persons given death sentences for crimes allegedly committed as minors were among the executed. One execution was carried out in public. In January 2021 alone, Iran executed at least 25.
So far in February 2021, Iran has executed 18 - and possibly 26 according to Omid Moradi, the lawyer of Zahra Esma’ili, who reported that on the day of his client's execution, a total of 17 people were hanged in Rajaishahr Prison in Karaj. On February 17, Zahra Esma’ili, accused of murdering her husband, reportedly a Ministry of Intelligence officer, was taken to the gallows in Rajaishahr. According to a Facebook message posted then later deleted by Moradi,she suffered a fatal stroke after watching 16 men put to death; her lifeless body was hanged nevertheless.
As in many other instances, the Rajaishahr executions were not announced by official Iranian sources. It was only after Esma’ili’s lawyer’s post went viral that the authorities acknowledged her death; and at that, only to discredit the lawyer’s claim. Whether or not this lawyer will be punished like hundreds of others who have dared to speak up about due process violations and lawlessness remains to be seen. State secrecy coupled with grave and systemic due process violations, where defendants are denied lawyers during interrogations  and too often coerced into self-incriminating confessions, mean that these executions amount to nothing short of state murder.
As a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Iran is obligated to limit the use of the death penalty only to “the most serious crimes,” consistently interpreted by UN human rights authorities as those involving intentional murder - ruling out the death penalty for political and religious activities, rape, robbery, and non-violent drug crimes. Even where intentional killing is alleged, defendants must have access to lawyers at all stages of the prosecution, including during the investigation. They must also be able to seek pardon or commutation from a competent state authority: a fundamental impossibility in Iran’s “qesas” framework of privatized justice for homicide cases, in which the final decision to execute a convicted person lies with the family of the murder victim. The ICCPR also categorically prohibits the execution of juvenile offenders. In light of such striking and widespread and systematic failures, both the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran and the UN General Assembly have called for the government of Iran to institute a moratorium on the death penalty.
State sanctioned killings are not limited to prisoners sentenced to death. Every year, scores of individuals, including couriers who smuggle small amounts of goods across the borders in provinces where the population struggles with extreme poverty, fall victim to arbitrary shootings by security forces. These are necessarily state sanctioned killings, which have continued over the decades while those who perpetrate them enjoy impunity. The most recent such killing was that of 19-year-old Mohammad Sanjarzehi, who was shot dead on suspicion of illegally transporting fuel in Baluchestan on February 15. The Baloch Activist Campaign reports that in the past year 46 people have been killed in similar circumstances in Sistan and Baluchestan Province. In Kurdistan, 36 couriers were shot dead by security forces and 109 were injured in 2020.
The assault on the right to life has not been effective in deterring crime, nor has that been its intent. From the onset of the revolution, the Islamic Republic’s leaders have used capital punishment, often meted out through unaccountable revolutionary courts, and extra-judicial killings as an effective means of terrorizing the general population and silencing dissent.They have rarely been held accountable.
Navid Afkari, a champion wrestler, was among the protesters sentenced to death for participating in the nationwide protests of 2017-18 and November 2019, which the state quashed with deadly force. His execution on September 12, 2020 seems already forgotten, even though it provoked widespread domestic and international outcry, including a statement by United Nations human rights experts. Following unprecedented popular uproar in July 2020 over capital sentences given to November 2019 protesters accused of property destruction and theft, which forced the judiciary to reconsider the verdicts, Afkari was put to death on a homicide conviction on the basis of a confession extracted under torture, issued in a closed door trial. Since Afkari’s execution, his brothers have been isolated in a closed ward in Adelabad Prison and deprived of phone calls, presumably punishment for releasing audio recordings which detailed the use of torture during interrogations and questioned the trumped-up charges against Afkari.
The Islamic Republic authorities’ assault on the right to life is not confined to Iran’s borders. Over the last four decades, hundreds of dissidents have been killed outside Iran’s borders or kidnapped, taken to Iran, and executed, most often without serious consequences for Iran.
Ruhollah Zam, the France-based journalist and manager of a widely-followed media channel which published content critical of the government, was put to death on December 12, 2020 after being kidnapped in Iraq. In October 2020, Habib Chaab, leader of an ethnic Arab separatist group who resided in Sweden, was lured to Turkey by agents affiliated with Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and rendered to Iran. Turkish officials announced on December 14, 2020 that 11 individuals had been arrested in connection with the plot.
Habibollah Sarbazi, a human rights defender and founder of the Baloch Activists’ Campaign, was subject to such an abduction attempt by black-clad gunmen in Turkey in June 2019. One and a half years later, despite imminent danger and threats made to him on Iranian state-affiliated media, the UNHCR has yet to relocate him to safety.
In a rare glimmer of accountability for extrajudicial killings outside Iran, in early February, Iranian diplomat Assadollah Assadi was given 20 years in prison - the maximum available sentence - by a Belgian court for supplying explosives for a failed 2018 attempt to bomb a Mojahedin-e Khalq rally in Paris. Meanwhile, in Turkey, an Iranian consular employee was arrested on suspicion of involvement in the November 2019 extrajudicial killing of Masoud Molavi Vardanjani, an information security specialist who managed a social media channel which published information critical of the Iranian government.
Inside Iran, citizens have very limited room for manoeuvre in challenging such state-sanctioned killings. Even as public opinion shifts on the death penalty, a heavy-handed, securitized approach to challenges to Iranian criminal law heads off momentum toward meaningful reform. In a one-week period in July 2020, as the hashtag “Don’t Execute” was used 11 million times on Persian Twitter, Iranian internet service providers slowed traffic. The very same judiciary which conducts strikingly high numbers of executions in violation of due process of law, receives citizens’ complaints about due process violations, and punishes lawyers and activists who speak out against laws and practices: Atena Da’emi, Nasrin Sotudeh, and Narges Mohammadi have all served prison time in connection with anti-death penalty advocacy.
Iranian officials at the highest levels have consistently shown their contempt for independent investigation of the country’s human rights situation. More recently, on February 15, 2021, Chief Justice Ebrahim Raisi decried “the mendacious human rights claims of some Western countries” and claimed that Iran would allow prison visits to external observers, if Iranian observers are allowed into any foreign prison of their choosing. The career of Raisi, who served as a member of the notorious 1988 death committees, which sent more than 4,000 political prisoners to their deaths in total secrecy, is paved with dead bodies.
The very fact that Raisi was chosen as Chief Justice is an insult to the Iranian people and the human rights community at large. How can Iranian citizens fight for change inside the country when their life hangs by a thread and their Chief Justice is a mass killer?
The human rights community will continue, as it has done in the past years, to painstakingly document human rights abuses and call for the international community to hold Iranian officials accountable for violating their international human rights commitments, including the right to life. But words alone have proven inadequate in bringing about impactful changes.
An Iran in which the state respects the fundamental rights of citizens is likely to be less aggressive in its foreign policy: this is not a matter of idealism, but long-term realism. Ordinary Iranians routinely criticize the Islamic Republic’s hostile foreign policy. The international community can show that the Iranian people are relevant by integrating human rights in its negotiations with Iran. “In the absence of access to the country and serious and consistent international efforts to hold Iranian leaders accountable, they will have little incentive to improve their behavior and comply with Iran’s international human right obligations” said Boroumand.
 Police officers interviewed by Iran Student News Agency (ISNA) investigative reporters acknowledged that there are no lawyers to be seen when a detainee is brought in for investigation. Lawyers can be present in the investigation bureau with prior authorization, but they cannot “disturb” the course of the investigation. According to one police officer, who preferred to remain anonymous: “The lawyer can teach the accused not to say anything, or to talk in a way that creates hang-ups in the course of the investigation. The police cannot permit the investigation to be hindered.”