London, Asharq Al-Awsat—Every year, Amnesty International releases dozens of reports about the state of human rights in country’s across the world. When it comes to Iran, one issue of particular concern for the organization is the country’s approach to capital punishment. In its report on worldwide trends in the use of the death penalty in 2013, Amnesty International noted that Iran was one of three countries that were responsible for almost 80 percent of all executions.
In particular, Amnesty International said that while Iranian media outlets reported that 369 people had been executed in Iran in 2013, there were grounds to believe that an additional 335 executions had been carried out, while close to 100 new death sentences had been imposed.
Following the election of moderate president Hassan Rouhani in June 2013, some signs of hope began to appear, particularly after he put forward his Citizenship Rights Charter. However, the reality is that the rate of executions escalated with 57 people executed in just the winter of 2014. This included the execution of political and cultural activists as well, according to reports.
While some people had hopes that the Rouhani government would be able to make a difference to the aggravated human rights situation in the country, others were not so optimistic given the strength of the Iranian judiciary. On September 9, Iranian Judiciary spokesman Gholam-Hossein Mohseni Ejei criticized President Hassan Rouhani’s administration for “interfering” in the process of ratification of judicial bills.
“The government should not interfere in the ratification process of judicial bills. Judicial bills are sent either to the Majlis or Expediency Council,” Ejei said.
Ejei’s comments can be interpreted as an attempt to move the government away from playing an active role in shaping or amending the regulations government Iran’s judicial system.
Most capital punishment cases in Iran are due to drug-related offenses. While the execution of juvenile offenders and political activists are also raising alarm balls among international human rights groups.
Individuals are reported to have been sentenced to death in the absence of fair trials or access to a lawyer, according to the UN Human right Rapporteur for Iran, Ahmed Shaheed’s latest report. In addition to this, there is a predominance of cases where Iranian defendants have incriminated themselves, pleading guilty to charges that could result in their execution. International human rights groups say that confessions are obtained under duress.
Iran’s Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli claimed in June 2014 that drug smugglers account for 80 percent of all executions in the country. He defended capital punishment in Iran, saying: “These drug smugglers who are executed mostly commit armed robbery, money laundering, and terrorist operations which threaten world peace.”
Iran is also one of few countries in the world that still execute juvenile offenders. At least eleven people were executed in 2013 for crimes they committed when they were minors. Although a new penal code has now been approved to prevent the execution of juveniles for drug-related crimes, they can still be executed for murder.
Ethnic and religious minorities—particularly Kurds, Arabs, and Baha’is—are over-subscribed among Iranian prisoners, and particularly those facing the death penalty for politically-motivated crimes. Aside from the sheer range of criminal offences carrying the death penalty, activists are often charged with crimes like moharebeh (“enmity against God”) or acting against national security. Other criminal offenses include “propaganda against the state” and “endangering the security of the state.”
The ability to convict people on such vaguely-worded criminal offenses frees the hands of state prosecutors to use allegations such as this to suppress the rights of activists and citizens.
Gholamreza Khosravi’s case is a good example. On June 1, Iranian authorities executed after finding him guilty of moharebeh. In his case, his crimes were allegedly passing information, and possibly financial assistance, to a London-based television station affiliated with the banned Mujahideen-e Khalq organization.
Mahafarid Amir Khosravi, a former businessman is another example. He was allegedly accused of large-scale financial corruption and money laundering. Khosravi was hanged in Tehran’s Evin prison on May 24, 2014 after being convicted of being responsible for a financial scam that was said to have cost Iranian banks nearly 2.6 billion US dollars.
Since people are convicted on such vague charges while unreported executions are carried out in the country, it is not easy for any campaigns or organizations to ascertain the precise number of political executions taking place in Rouhani’s Iran.
Human rights activists suggest that there is a direct and obvious relation between the political situation in Iran and the number of executions taking place. In other words, executions are a means of sending a message to protesters and political activists during times of chaos.
A review of the number of executions reported in the national media showed that fewer executions were carried out—or at least reported—in the months leading up to the most recent parliamentary and presidential elections. Many analysts believe this represented implicit encouragement for Iranians to the polls. With Rouhani now in office, will he be able to burnish his moderate credentials by solving Iran’s execution problem?