“Amputating prisoners’ fingers is a form of torture, and is yet another shocking reminder of the shameless inhumanity of the criminal justice system in Iran, which legalizes a crime under international law. Carrying out such heinous punishments is not justice; it is an abhorrent assault on human dignity.”
So said Diana Eltahawy, Amnesty International’s deputy regional director for the Middle East and North Africa in June this year. It came after eight men convicted of robbery were moved from Urmia to Greater Tehran Penitentiary ahead of their fingers being chopped off as part of their sentence.
The next month, after these and two other amputations were carried out in Iranian prisons, Amnesty called on the international community to step in: “The victims of judicial amputations in Iran are overwhelmingly from impoverished backgrounds and lack legal representation of their choosing. It is extremely difficult for them and their families to alert human rights organizations or the media of looming amputations, due to threats of reprisal from Iranian authorities.”
Official statistics regarding corporal punishment in Iran are thin on the ground. But a large number of new reports of amputation have come to light in the past 12 months, concurrent with a significant increase in the death penalty under President Ebrahim Raisi.
Corporal Punishment in the 21st Century
Corporal punishment is any penalty issued to criminals by a judicial authority that involves inflicting physical pain, from flogging and amputations to death by stoning.
Most modern, civilized countries have long turned away from such methods. This includes all countries bound by the European Convention on Human Rights, including Turkey, and countries like the US, even though capital punishment still exists there. Only a few, abnormal states would still consider applying them today.
Part of the reason for this is that the physical and mental harm corporal punishments cause the convict may be permanent and irrevocable. It can also stop them from working in future, with all the financial problems that can cause. They are regarded as a form of torture regardless of how they are described in domestic legal parlance. In the the Islamic Republic (more below), this is regarded as precisely what makes them desirable.
Outside of Iran and a handful of other abnormal states, only outlier groups and militias seeking to terrorize a given population – like ISIS in Syria – regularly deploy and promote methods like these, which have their roots in medieval times, when the general conception of human dignity was not the same as it is today.
An incident at Evin Prison in late spring 2022 gives a clearer window into the mindset of Iran’s judicial officials on corporal punishment. On May 31, as reported by Amnesty, a prisoner named Seyed Barat Hosseini had four fingers cut off in Evin Prison.
There were multiple officials present. They included the Tehran prosecutor, the head of Evin Prison, the prison’s assistant prosecutor, the judge in charge of sentence implementation there, and the chief doctor at the prison clinic. Despite the latter standing by, Barat Hosseini was given no anaesthetic.
Beforehand, however, officials approached Barat Hosseini to let him know that, as an option, he could pay to get the fingers frozen and then have them surgically reattached on completion of his sentence. Unsurprisingly, Barat Hosseini did not have the money for this.
After his fingers were guillotined, Barat Hosseini immediately lost consciousness due to blood loss and severe pain and was transferred to a hospital outside. He was returned to prison just three days later, before he had recovered, and his wounds became infected. In mid-July he was sent back to hospital again after the wounds were inadequately treated, but again was returned the same day. He has been held in isolation ever since then to prevent news of his current poor condition spreading.
Like many victims of state-sanctioned amputation in Iran, Barat Hosseini was convicted of theft, a crime punishable by a fine and perhaps jail time in most normally-run countries. In Iran, the situation is more complicated by the state’s retrograde understanding of justice.
Torture is explicitly banned in both the Islamic Republic’s constitution and other laws. However, it has demurred on making a statement to this effect at the international level. The UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on December 10, 1984, around five years after the Islamic Revolution. A total of 173 out of 195 countries worldwide have ratified its contents. Iran is one of the few to have refused, in part because it runs contrary to the country’s domestic laws.
In Iran, criminal courts base their verdicts on a certain interpretation of Sharia law laid out in the Islamic Penal Code. Based on this particular reading, which is far from universal, the current regime in Iran does not consider punishments like amputation and flogging as “torture” but as Ta’zir, Hadd and Qisas, essentially retributive justice –which in itself has been woefully miscalculated.
In effect, it means all prohibitions on torture enacted in Iran are superseded by a blinkered idea of what justice ought to look like. They are decorative only, and violated – without any exaggeration – on a daily basis, at the level of institutions.