The recent acid attacks in Isfahan have worried everyone. So far there is no clear evidence as to who is responsible, but there has been widespread speculation that they were carried out by extremist Islamic groups working to promote their interpretation of the Islamic notion of “Commanding the Right and Forbidding the Wrong” — and, in particular, that the attacks were a response to women who do not wear hejab in line with the Islamic Republic’s guidelines.

But, over the last two weeks, there have been increased doubts about this theory, or at least over just how “extreme” these groups or individuals might be. Could the perpetrators be less organized groups, some of them even taking their cue from authorities and reinterpreting them for their own agenda? Some of the first attacks took place close to the time when Isfahan’s Friday prayer leader said that “commanding the right and forbidding the wrong” could go beyond words and that action can be taken in support of it. At the same time, a bill that would help implement this Islamic value was put forward and approved. Other signs that the attacks might have closer links to the proposed bill and not be the work of extremists include text messages that were sent to some Isfahani women, warning them of the consequences of not observing the rules for wearing hejab and the Iranian government’s attempts to attribute the crimes to foreign countries, as well as its failure to provide clear information on the cases.

However looking at the bigger picture, it is clear where some of the responsibility lies: with Iranian law.

It is not the first time that Iranian laws have provided immunity for rogue elements acting under vaguely defined notions of sharia law. For example, under the penal code, the punishment for murder (upon the request of the victim’s family) is execution. But if the murderer can prove to the court that the victim had committed a crime punishable by the death penalty (which encompasses a wide range of crimes including adultery, recidivist alcohol use and insulting the Prophet and Imams of Islam), the murderer would be exempt from punishment. Even if the murderer cannot prove to the court that the victim had committed a crime punishable by death, he only needs to prove that he killed the victim believing that such a crime had been committed, and he would still be immune from execution, though he might be sentenced to paying “blood money” and a maximum of 10 years’ imprisonment. 

Under the recent proposed legislation, says Iranian lawyer Mahnaz Parakand, “rogue elements and governmental forces will be allowed to interfere in people’s personal affairs,” forcing people to behave a certain way and forbidding them from other types of behavior, based solely on their interpretation of sharia law.  This goes directly against Article 169 of the constitution, which stipulates that “No act or omission may be regarded as a crime with retrospective effect on the basis of a law framed subsequently.”

As Mahnaz Parakand points out, Article 9 of the constitution states “the freedom, independence, unity, and territorial integrity of the country are inseparable from one another, and their preservation is the duty of the government and all individual citizens…no authority has the right to abrogate legitimate freedoms, not even by enacting laws and regulations for that purpose, under the pretext of preserving the independence and territorial integrity of the country.” So, according to this, a person’s freedom is so important, it cannot be violated even in order to preserve the country’s independence. Yet the legislation will allow for people’s conduct to be interfered with, thereby contravening the constitution.

Because “commanding the right and forbidding the wrong” is a sharia concept and there are many interpretations of sharia law, it is not exactly clear what constitutes right and wrong. For example, according to most interpretations of sharia, it is wrong for women to expose their hair. But some religious thinkers — including Hassan Yousefi Eshkevari and Sedigheh Vasmaghi — have argued otherwise. Moreover, there are many concepts that are considered wrong under sharia, but are not considered crimes under Iran’s penal code. For example, not taking part in the tradition of prayer is wrong, but it is not a crime. So the new bill contravenes the rule of law and Iran’s obligations under international human rights conventions, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which states in Article 15 that “No one shall be held guilty of any criminal offence on account of any act or omission which did not constitute a criminal offence, under national or international law, at the time when it was committed.”

However it also contravenes the Islamic Republic’s own laws, including Article 36 of the constitution that states that “The passing and execution of a sentence must be carried out by a competent court and in accordance with law” and Article 2 of its Penal Code, which states “Any conduct, including action or omission, for which punishment is provided by law, constitutes an offense.”

Lawyer Musa Barzin Khalife Loo says that, according to Article 10 of the new bill for “Commanding the Right and Forbidding the Wrong,” people who resist and protest against instructions given to them could be imprisoned or fined.  “Resisting and protesting against arbitrarily interference in one’s life is a natural reaction,” he says, “And the criminalization of such a natural reaction is against the rule of law.”

“According to Article 16 of the Bill, people who die or are injured during their mission to implement the principle of commanding the right and forbidding the wrong will be considered to be martyrs and devotees (janbaaz). They will be covered by the law that applies to the service of devotees (Qanun Jameh Khadamaat Resani be Isargaran). This sanctifies the rogue elements that act according to their own discretion,” he says, and not on a legal framework that supports the constitution.

If the recent acid attacks were carried out by rogue elements — people that have ties to the authorities but are acting independently — this would not be the first time. One of the most well known examples, the serial killings of dissident intellectuals in 1998, were carried out by authorities working for the intelligence ministry. They were acting in line with a fatwa that branded intellectuals as apostates who could be punished by death. Unfortunately, until the laws that grant immunity to these attackers are abolished or revised, the recent attacks in Isfahan are unlikely to be the last time that people take the law into their own hands. 

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