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by Kimia Sanati

No One too Young for Execution in Iran

(IPS) TEHRAN -- The near-doubling of the number of executions in Iran to 177 prisoners in 2006 has only steeled the resolve of human rights activists here to raise public awareness of the idea that capital punishment is not an effective deterrent to crime and should be abolished as inhuman.

The Iran execution figures were published in the latest report on capital punishment worldwide by Amnesty International. China topped the list with 1,010 recorded executions in 2006 -- although human rights activists say the true figure could be up to eight times higher. Iran's execution numbers were unofficial, gathered from press reports and activists. There are no government statistics on executions.

The Amnesty report showed a significant drop in executions worldwide -- 26 percent less than in 2005. But the trend was the opposite in Iran. There are also no signs of the number being any less this year, activists say, noting that in just two weeks in May the press reported some 18 executions.

"The abolition of all the laws related to capital punishment in Iran now seems a very far-fetched dream," one human rights activist, requesting anonymity, told IPS. "Capital punishment is widely considered as a vital factor in preventing crime in our society."

One of their most important tasks now was to create awareness that more executions did not mean less crime. A campaign was also necessary to bring pressure on the authorities to reduce the number of executions, the activist said.

An array of capital offences are now in place in Iran. These include murder, drug-related offences, ideological and financial crimes and even sexual offences.

Execution is usually by hanging. Occasionally, in case of sex offenders, such as convicted child abusers and rapists, terrorists and drug traffickers, executions are carried out publicly. Sex offences may attract death by stoning.

A high proportion of the executions this year have been for drug trafficking. It is a capital crime to be in possession of more than 30 grams of heroin and five kilos of opium.

In February, Nasrollah Sanbezehi was convicted of terrorism after a hasty trial without access to a lawyer, according to activists here. On February 19, a day after his trial, he was publicly hanged in the city of Zahedan, southeastern Iran. Shanbezehi was one of four alleged Baluchi separatists arrested after a car bomb exploded in front of a bus carrying Revolutionary Guards. Twelve guards were killed in the attack.

Before the trial, Shanbezehi confessed on television and pleaded for forgiveness. There have been other similar hastily-arranged trials where defendants have been denied access to defense lawyers, according to rights activists.

Iran continues to execute minors, although this is a violation of international law, activists say. Four young men alleged to have committed crimes when under the age of 18, were among those executed last year, according to these sources. In 2004 a young girl was publicly executed for sex offences. It was later proved that she was 16 at the time of her execution. Nasrin Sotoudeh, a lawyer and child rights activists is currently defending a client, named Soghra, who was sentenced to death for an alleged killing when she was 13. The woman is now 30 years old and has been on death row for 17 years, Sotoudeh told IPS. The lawyer said she knew of 36 other cases of minors sentenced to death over the past three years. But there were "many more" in smaller towns. These have not been reported in the press nor do they appear in officials records, she said.

"I believe the situation has worsened over the past two or three years," Sotoudeh said. This was because children were being tried as adults in provincial rather than juvenile courts. Judges trying adultery cases are obliged to hand down death sentences by stoning -- although these are rarely carried out. Some "tens" of women and men sentenced to death in this way are now awaiting execution, according to human rights sources.

In May 2006 a man and a woman were stoned to death for adultery in Mashad, northeast Iran. Some months later, women's rights groups began campaigning against the stoning laws which are more frequently used against women than men. Volunteer lawyers took up the cases of several women and one man and saved them from execution, according to sources.

Iran's legal system is based on related Islamic laws. All legislation passed by parliament also needs the approval of the all-powerful, hard-line six-member clerical council appointed by the Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei. This examines the compatibility of all laws with religious laws.

The council can veto parliamentary legislation. Any change of law is a religious matter and the decision ultimately rests in the hands of the religious authorities. Opposition to the Islamic laws can lead to heresy charges which may result in the death penalty.

Human rights activist Emadeddin Baghi is currently campaigning to convince law-makers and religious authorities to abolish capital punishment -- or at least reduce its use to the minimum.

A devoted Muslim and former student of a Qom religious seminary, Baghi finds justification for his belief in abolition and the "right to live" in the Koran and Islamic Shariah law.

In 1999 Neshat, a highly popular reformist newspaper published an article by Baghi arguing that Iran's religious laws calling for retribution for a killing did not apply to a large number of cases -- some 25 percent -- where death was cause unintentionally.

This view was judged heretical by the authorities. In a huge crackdown on reformist newspapers the publication was closed down. The editor, Mashallah Shamsolvaezin, was jailed for 19 months. Baghi was also put on trial for opposing the code of the Koran. He was sentenced to two years in prison for the article and other alleged offences. The ban was lifted five years later, although the newspaper never reappeared.

Undeterred, Baghi has now founded Iran's first anti-capital punishment organization, the Association for the Right to Live. "We haven't yet applied for a licence for our association because we are sure our application will be rejected. We have also seen what pressure is being currently exerted on those non-governmental organizations which are legally licensed. The government is so distrustful of them," Baghi told IPS.

Baghi has now written a book on the death penalty and Islam. His central argument is that abolition would not be contrary to Islam.

Iranian authorities have blocked publication of the book. But Baghi is now planning to circumvent the ban by publishing it in Afghanistan. He hopes the book will play a role in reducing the religious taboo associated with any open debate on the abolition of the death penalty in the country.

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Albion Monitor   May 16, 2007   (

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