Human rights lawyer Mohammad Mostafaei has been working towards abolishing the death penalty in Iran for over 20 years. It’s extremely important, he says, to understand that openly challenging capital punishment in an Islamic society is tantamount to attacking that country’s religious foundations. Instead, Mostafaei promotes a practical revolution and a move towards replacing a culture of violence with one of moderation. Through rigorous research and informing the public about the underlying reasons for crime, he believes the death penalty in Iran can be abolished.

Here are Mostafaei’s 10 steps for abolishing the death penalty in Iran:

Step 1

Stop using slogans and save lives

The first step is to replace slogans against the death penalty with practical measures. Phrases such as “Stop Executions!”, “Executions Are Against Humanity!” or “Death Penalty Is Barbarism!” are seductive. I am not against them. But if we look at the reality, we will see that they divert us from the main goal.

In an Islamic country, when you issue slogans against capital punishment, you are practically declaring war against religion. Capital punishment has been officially recognized as an Islamic rule. No matter how much power you have, you will be defeated, because you will be seen as fighting against Islam.

For years, human rights organizations have fought against the death penalty in Islamic countries and in India, but have got nowhere. They don’t understand that the only way to approach this is by saving lives, individual lives. If we save more lives as time goes by, then we will have limited the number of executions.

This the most crucial of the ten steps. It is the start of a practical revolution to limit capital punishment. By practical I don’t mean demonstrations, gatherings or expensive seminars. It is the start of a cultural and social movement to replace violence with moderation.

Step 2

Learn about the accused

Know the accused and stand by him the moment the case against him begins. To save somebody from death, we must know about him. This is not a difficult task. We can do this through reading newspapers, websites, and by talking to knowledgeable and engaged journalists and civil rights activists.

Step 3

Build a profile for the accused. Nobody is born a criminal

Create a “character” profile for the accused. How a criminal’s character is portrayed is an important part of fighting against their sentence. Nobody is born a criminal. By looking into the life of the accused we can prove that either social abnormalities or personal problems have led them to commit a crime.

By reviewing my clients’ cases, I concluded that many of them came from poor and deprived sections of society and never learned “how to live right”. Their families were often indifferent to them and the educational system where they lived was seriously flawed.

Most people who receive death penalty sentences really do not deserve this punishment. Some are completely innocent and confessions have been extracted by torture. Some do not have a lawyer and cannot defend themselves or have committed the crime under extreme conditions. Some have no motives and the crime has taken place as a result of an accident. Creating a “character” portfolio can help us to see the cases from a scientific point of view.

Step 4 Concentrate on the accused and provide support

Governments who have the death penalty on their books primarily concentrate on crime and punishment, and do not pay enough attention to the person accused of the crime. In fact, the criminal is suffering from an illness. Humanity requires that we should find a way to treat him. When a crime takes place, most governments try to remove the criminal from society by imposing the maximum punishment, instead of trying to find the roots of the crime.

It is here that human rights activists should step in and, from the beginning, support the accused. Sometimes they might even negotiate with governments to find ways to prevent the crime from happening in the first place.

Step 5 Conduct research and make it public

Conduct scientific research. Study the defendant and the special circumstances around him. This will provide solid ammunition for fighting the death penalty. Public sympathy for the offender is not something that governments want or promote, and many people who witness an execution close up do not know anything concrete about the criminal. Research about individual cases must be carried out -- and made available to the public.

Step 6  Eradicate the culture of violence

Present the underlying causes for crime to society. One of the biggest barriers to abolishing or reducing capital punishment is the spread of a “culture of violence” or a “culture of revenge” in society. Civil society must do its utmost to eradicate the culture of violence and replace it with a culture of peace and goodwill. Studying personal profiles by sociologists, psychologists and criminologists will help identify and clarify the roots of the crime. Celebrities, including sportsmen and film actors, can play an effective role in weakening the culture of violence.

Step 7 Engage the media

The media must be invited into this arena. Radio, television, news agencies and newspapers can question the culture of violence and promote a culture of peace, moderation and friendship. The media can reveal previously hidden aspects of the accused’s character and play an effective role in saving those condemned to die. Documentaries and educational films can be extremely effective to this end.

Step 8 Make public statements

Writing letters, issuing statements, publishing reports and gathering signatures for petitions are all effective ways of challenging capital punishment. Unfortunately, at the moment, this step is the only one that many human rights organization take when fighting the death penalty. They often disregard the other steps, making this step a waste of time. In my opinion, only when we have taken action as set out in the other steps, can we launch campaigns to stop capital punishment. Once all the other steps have been followed, society will be ready to accept a change in penal codes and can pressure the government to make these changes.

Step 9 Be practical

Find practical ways to abolish capital punishment. We can negotiate with members of parliament and government officials -- or even religious authorities -- to prepare the ground for limiting or doing away completely with the death penalty.

Step 10  Hope for change

After following steps 1-9, we can have hope that the death penalty will be abolished.


Read The Value of Human Life: An Interview With Mohammad Mostafaei

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