Reformists in Iran are under pressure, detainees face torture and abuse, and people are being executed at an “alarming” rate, the Pakistani human rights lawyer and United Nations Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Iran Asma Jahangir told the UN Human Rights Council on March 13 in Geneva.
Earlier, on March 8, the non-governmental organization Iran Human Rights (IHR), published its annual report on the death penalty in Iran for 2016. According to the report, Iran still has one of the highest numbers of executions in the world despite the fact that the number of executions for that year — at least 530 — was 45 percent lower than 2015.
“We welcome any reduction in the use of the death penalty,” said Mahmood Amiry-Moghaddam, the director and spokesperson of IHR. “But unfortunately there are no indications that the relative decrease in the number of the executions in 2016 was due to a change in the Islamic Republic of Iran’s policy. Our reports show that in just the first two months of 2017 Iranian authorities have executed at least 140 people.”
Asma Jahangir delivered her written report to the council on March 7. She said she regretted that her study did not reveal any notable improvement in the situation of human rights in the country. As expected, Tehran immediately condemned the report, labeling it “unjust” and “politically-motivated,” and arguing that it set out to portray a gloomy image of the Islamic Republic. “As announced several times, the Islamic Republic of Iran does not acknowledge the report prepared by the special rapporteur who has been missioned based on a politically-tainted and selective resolution of certain countries," Foreign Ministry Spokesman Bahram Ghasemi said.
Of the 530 people executed in 2016, Islamic Republic officials have only announced 232, or 44 percent, of them. Two hundred and ninety-six people, or 56 percent, were executed for drug-related charges and 142 were executed for murder. At least five of the executed were under 18 and at least nine women were hanged. Thirty-three executions were conducted in public spaces.
The only encouraging finding, according to IHR’s report, was that the families of the murder victims forgave 251 murder convicts, saving their lives — a higher number than in 2015.
It appears that, following on from the nuclear agreement, European countries in particular have failed to apply appropriate pressure on Iran in response to the executions. “In 2016,” Amiry-Moghaddam told IranWire, “officials of European countries announced twice that they wanted a new round of talks with Iran over human rights and especially executions. But it seems that during the three and a half years of Hassan Rouhani’s presidency not much attention has been paid to human rights and executions during negotiations.”
In response to criticisms from international organizations over the high number of executions in Iran, Islamic Republic officials usually argue that more than 90 percent of executions are carried out as punishment for drug-related crimes. But according to the IHR report, 56 percent were executed for drug-related crimes, while in 2015, 66 percent of the executions were drug-related.
The Stalled Bill to Reduce Executions
In October 2016, close to 150 Iranian lawmakers signed a bill to significantly reduce the number of people executed on drug-trafficking charges. On November 23, 2016, parliament agreed to speed up deliberations regarding the bill. But it faced stiff opposition from a number of judiciary agencies. Since then, Iran’s Drug Control Headquarters has slowed down the process.
Revolutionary courts were responsible for issuing at least 64 percent of the death sentences in 2016. The courts were established after the 1979 Islamic Revolution — at the time they were set up as temporary courts designed to deal with the officials of the former regime. “More than 37 years later, they continue to operate,” says the IHR report. Today, revolutionary courts handle anything that relates to security issues, such as cases involving political and civil activists, and other cases dealing with alleged corruption or drug-related charges. “These courts are responsible for the vast majority of the death sentences issued and carried out over the last 37 years in Iran,” the report says. “The revolutionary courts are less transparent than the public courts (both criminal and civil) and their judges are known for greater abuse of their legal powers than other judges.”
According to the Iran Human Rights group, revolutionary judges “often deny access to legal representation during the investigation phase and prevent lawyers from accessing client files on the basis of confidentiality.” The report also says that judges often claim that lawyers have insufficient qualifications to review certain files.
Blatant Examples of Cruelty
The IHR report outlines some of the most egregious examples from 2016. They include:
- In August 2016, 25 Kurdish prisoners of Sunni faith were executed after being charged with cooperating with militant Sunni groups. The death sentences were issued after trials lasting less than 15 minutes and without any possibility of defense. “IHR has credible information that many of these prisoners had been subjected to torture to extract forced confessions,” the report says.
- In violation of its obligations under international treaties, the Islamic Republic executed at least five juveniles.
- Iran also carried out public executions and other barbaric punishments such as amputations, and blinding of eyes. Thirty-four people were hanged in public spaces, in front of hundreds of citizens, including children.
- The crackdown on campaigners opposed to the death penalty intensified and several activists were sentenced to long prison sentences. Human rights activist Narges Mohammadi was sentenced to 16 years in prison, including 10 years for founding the LEGAM (“Step by step to abolish the death penalty”) campaign. The persecution of campaigner Atena Daemi was another example of harsh treatement of activists.
In her report, Jahangir also noted that Iran has reportedly executed the highest number of juvenile offenders in the world over the last decade. She urged the Iranian establishment to “immediately and unconditionally prohibit the sentencing of children to death and to engage in a comprehensive process of commutation of all death sentences handed down on persons currently on death row for crimes committed under the age of 18."
She also reiterated calls made by her predecessor Ahmed Shaheed to establish a moratorium on the use of the death penalty.
Dissolve The Revolutionary Courts!
The IHR reports points to the revolutionary courts as being one of the main perpetrators of unjust and repressive judiciary practices in Iran. “In their future talks with the Islamic Republic,” says Amiry-Moghaddam, “European countries must demand the dissolution of the revolutionary courts while pursuing the question of executions in Iran.”
He also expressed hope that Iranian lawyers and jurists would take up the demand to dissolve the revolutionary courts. “Thirty-seven years after the revolution,” he says, “the revolutionary courts continue the same practices. Besides the fact that the defendants in these courts are deprived of their most basic rights, the judges have powers beyond ordinary judges.”
In the conclusion of her report, Jahangir reaches the same conclusion: “The Special Rapporteur observes that profound legal and structural changes are required for any significant improvement of the human rights situation to take place in the Islamic Republic of Iran… [she] is concerned that the administration of justice is undermined by the proliferation of judicial decision making bodies. In this respect, she draws attention to the recommendations made by the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention following the visit it undertook in the country to abolish revolutionary tribunals and religious courts. She is also concerned about the lack of independence of the judiciary.”
In December 2016, President Rouhani unveiled and signed a Citizen’s Rights Charter, guaranteeing many progressive rights for Iranians. But the charter has failed to make any difference to how the Iranian regime and judiciary work. It is unlikely that latest report by the UN Special Rapporteur will change this either, especially since Iran’s most senior officials have already condemned it and labeled it “politically-motivated.”