A civil society movement that encourages families to forgive people found guilty of murder is gaining momentum in Iran, saving the lives of dozens of convicted killers.
A report by monitoring and advocacy group Iran Human Rights (IHR) says over the last four years, the “forgiveness movement” has grown in Iran. In 2016, there were 232 cases where families chose to forgive the murderers of their loved ones, instead of opting for a retribution death sentence.
Mahmood Amiry-Moghaddam, the director of Iran Human Rights, part of a coalition of groups against the death penalty, says that although Iranians are largely powerless when it comes to legal decisions, murder cases can be the exception. Victims’ families can choose “retribution in kind” — referred to in the Koran as qisas — as punishment. Qisas allows the families to choose whether the person found guilty of murder will lose their own life as punishment; they can accept “blood money” from the convict; or they can choose forgiveness. “The aim was to share the blame with people,” says Amiry-Moghaddam. “The state has the responsibility. But when they do these executions, they say 'it's not us, it's the people who want it.’”
Now, he says, activists are using the concept of the public will to bring about change in Iranian society. Civil society groups meet with victims’ families, urging them to consider choosing forgiveness or blood money over the death penalty. “The increasing number of forgiveness cases is a sign of people's opposition to the death penalty,” Amiry-Moghaddam says.
“If you go on the street and say no to retribution or qisas, then you can be arrested and charged with apostasy, because qisas is in the Koran. But if you promote forgiveness, nobody can charge you with anything. I regard it as a campaign for human dignity. What we will eventually have in Iran is a revolution of dignity, and this is an important part of it.”
Using media reports, and through contacts within Iran, IHR identified 232 forgiveness cases in 2016. However, the group says the actual numbers for both forgiveness and qisas death sentences are most likely greater than media coverage suggests.
While the Iranian regime has expressed a willingness to reconsider using the death penalty in drug-related offenses, it regards the Iranian public’s power to hand down retribution punishment for murder as sacred, a private right that cannot be reversed. During talks with the EU in October 2016, the Head of the Judiciary, Ayatollah Sadegh Amoli Larijani, responded angrily to calls to address the qisas death penalty. “Who has given you the right to dictate your ideology and method of life on the whole world?” he said. And, on November 11, 2016, the Iranian deputy Foreign Minister Majid Takht-Ravanchi told the Iranian Labor News Agency: “The Islamic Republic of Iran will not cross its red lines, especially regarding capital punishment and qisas (retribution) in human rights talks with the European Union”.
Strong Abolitionist Movement
According to the IHR report, in 2016, Islamic Republic authorities executed 530 people, 45 percent fewer than were executed than in 2015. Official sources announced 232 executions. However, these reductions are not thought to be an indication that Iran has changed its policy.
“Iran has the highest number of executions per capita,” Amiry- Moghaddam says. At the same time, he says it also has one of the biggest abolitionist movements among countries that still carry out the death penalty, and it certainly has the biggest movement in the region.
In 2016, two of Iran’s most prominent anti-death penalty campaigners, Narges Mohammadi and Atena Daemi, both received heavy prison sentences in connection with their work. This could in part be a response to the momentum within the movement, and the fact that it is gaining support.
As with the forgiveness movement, there is a growing campaign for the boycott of public hangings, which continue in Iran — 33 took place in 2016. “We need a proactive campaign because what the authorities want is to make it a normal part of everyday life,” Amiry-Moghaddam says. In one case, on August 10, 2016, a man was due to be hanged for the murder of a Revolutionary Court prosecutor in Kermanshah, western Iran. He was hanged in public in the town of Ravansar, but according to local sources, the citizens of the town boycotted the public execution following a call by civil society groups. Witnesses to the execution were mainly local officials.
The Iranian government regularly states that the death penalty is necessary to deal with the country’s serious problems with drug trafficking, even though there is no clear evidence that the death penalty acts as a deterrent when it comes to drug-related crimes. In fact, in August 2016, Mohammad Baqer Olfat, deputy head of the judiciary for social affairs, admitted as much.
Although the UN has been vocal in its condemnation of Iran’s use of the death penalty, one of the key findings of the new Iran Human Rights report is the link between the work of the United Nations Office for Drugs and Crime (UNODC) to help Iran tackle drug trafficking and an actual increase in executions. Because Iran hands down the death penalty for many drugs offenses — possession of 30 grams of heroin or amphetamine can result in a death sentence — any support the UNODC gives Iran to help prosecute people involved in drug crimes can support these policies, however indirectly. But Amiry-Mogghadam says it’s a mistake to think that refusing to cooperate with the UNODC amounts to the end of dialogue with Iran. “The cooperation between the UN and Iran is not only about fighting smugglers. There’s a project about treatment for drug addicts; there’s one about HIV and education. Those projects are important.”
In 2016, at least 296 people were executed in connection with drugs offenses, more than 56 percent of the total number of recorded executions. The number is lower than the annual executions for drug offenses in the last six years, but there is no indication that this relative reduction is due to a change in Iran’s death penalty policy.
Revolutionary Courts and International Pressure
As part of his push for human rights campaigners to take the long view when it comes to Iran, Mahmoud Amiry-Moghaddam says much more attention must be paid to the role Revolutionary Courts play in handing down death sentences. These courts, which were set up as a temporary measure in 1979 to deal with the shah's former officials, implemented 64 percent of the death sentences in Iran in 2016, totaling 340 executions.
“Since 2010, 3,210 people have been executed because of the Revolutionary Courts' verdicts,” he says. “They are just sham trials. The person is subjected to torture, and has already confessed.” Trials last only 15 minutes, and lawyers are denied access to clients’ case files. It’s vital that the international community and Iran’s legal community maintain focus on the unconstitutional nature of the courts.
Despite the fact that the number of people executed has risen under the current president, it was only in October 2016 that the European Union raised the issue of human rights and the death penalty since dialogue was reopened. “Before the lifting of the sanctions in January 2016, human rights in general and the death penalty in particular have not been on the agenda,” Amiry-Mogghadam says. “It's very unfortunate because this was a golden opportunity where the international community, and especially the European Union, could have a positive impact on the lives of Iranian people. I really hope they haven't missed this opportunity.” Putting human rights and the death penalty on the top of the agenda, he says, will benefit the global community long term.