A convicted thief who repented and handed himself was executed in Iran on April 18, once again focusing world attention on the Islamic Republic’s use of the death penalty and its flawed judiciary. 

Iran is second only to China when it comes to the number of people it executes each year, according to a recent report by Amnesty International.

In 2017, Islamic Republic judges sent at least 507 people to their deaths. According to “The Death Penalty in 2017: Facts and Figures,” it is not clear how many of these death verdicts were issued in accordance with the due process under Iran’s own existing criminal laws. At least 31 executions in Iran were carried out in public and at least five people who were executed were under 18 at the time they committed the crime for which they were sentenced to death.

After China and Iran, Saudi Arabia comes third in the number of executions, followed by Iraq and Pakistan.

In 2018, one of the first executions carried out in Iran was of Bahman Varmaziyar. Varmaziyar was a confessed armed robber who had repented and had turned himself in, returning the gold he had stolen from a jewelry shop. He was executed on Wednesday, April 18 in Hamedan, although his execution was scheduled to take place a day earlier. According to the Provincial Prosecutor Kamran Hamzeh, the execution was temporarily suspended due to a “judicial problem.”

At least in this case a “judicial problem” allowed the convict to live for one more day, but in general, the Iranian judiciary is rife with such “errors,” affecting the lives of hundreds of people — from the people who face execution and their families, to others affected by the judicial system whose lives are made unbearably difficult. 

The biggest victims of the mistakes made by Iran's judicial system are those facing the death penalty and their families. But studies conducted both within Iran and outside the country have found a widespread mistrust in the judiciary, with people working in the legal professions as well as members of the public citing misuse of power and incompetence as key reasons for failures in the system. 

The Iranian Notaries Association published a survey looking at legal errors in Iran in 2014. “A Statistical Analysis of Judicial Errors in the Increase of Crime” [Persian PDF] gathered the responses of 100 professionals employed in the judicial system. The group, which comprised of judges, lawyers, bailiffs, and people working in law offices and other sections of the judiciary, were asked the question: “What, in your view, are the main reasons for errors in applying the penal code by those responsible for administering it?” Of the respondents, 16.5 percent replied that it was due to “unfamiliarity with the laws,” 34 percent said “lack of necessary information” and 46.4 percent cited “lack of necessary experience.” Six of the respondents did not answer the question and 3.1 percent chose the option “intentional error” — meaning a deliberate miscarriage of justice.

A Little Lower than God

The Iranian report also highlights “mistakes resulting from powers accorded to the judiciary and judges” as another reason for erroneous verdicts. “The prosecutor’s powers are only a finger-breadth less than those of God,” Mashhad’s prosecutor Gholamali Sadeghi said in 2017 [Persian link].

One field study that found that, out of 81 legal experts interviewed, not one of them said they would describe Iran’s judiciary system “extremely trustworthy.” Only nine respondents found the judiciary “very trustworthy” and 45 expressed “ordinary” trust in the institution. Twenty-seven said their trust in the judiciary was “low.” 

Another survey cited the “role of the courts and judges in penal law mistakes.” Here, the results were less dramatic. Of the 100 respondents, 17 percent chose “high” when describing their role in introducing errors, 35 percent said “average” and 44 percent found it to be “low”.

Survey respondents were also asked about the “role of prosecutors’ offices” — those responsible for pursuing and investigating cases — in judicial and penal errors. Again, these results do not suggest an overwhelming mistrust in these offices — though, as with the views on courts and judges, they certainly don't suggest a huge well of trust either. Fifteen percent evaluated the prosecutors' offices’ role in judicial mistakes as “high,” while 45 percent said it was “average” and 33 percent found it to be “low”.

Regarding the “role of bailiffs” in judicial mistakes, 35 percent of the respondents said that it was “high,” 37 percent chose to describe it as “average” and 25 percent believed it to be “low.”

Many of those who took part in survey did not believe that lawyers, plaintiffs or defendants were to blame for the flaws in judicial processes. Only 20 percent of the respondents said that the “role of the parties to the case, lawyers and witnesses” in judicial mistakes was “high.” Forty percent called it “average” and 29 percent said that it was “low.”

In another survey, 81 legal experts were asked about “the level of the harmony of existing laws with the needs of the society.” Only four respondents agreed such harmony existed, choosing the option “high,” while 33 said “average” and 37 found it to be “low.”

The “role of the complexity and the vagueness of the law and disagreements over their interpretations” was also examined. Of those surveyed, 36 percent found it to be “high,” 44 percent said that it was “average” and 16 percent described it as “low.”

Overall, the surveys reveal a low level of trust in the judiciary system of the Islamic Republic among experts and those involved in the judicial processes. Those closest to the system and with the most knowledge of it have minimal confidence in it. But although their lives and work are very much affected by these flaws, it is the lives of thousands of families that really suffer and face ruin. Many people find themselves in the gallows because of these persistent “mistakes.” It is no wonder that  — as additional surveys have shown — over 69 percent of Iranians consider the judiciary and the courts to be corrupt.

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