By Edward Carney
On Tuesday, multiple news outlets picked up on a statement that was issued by Amnesty International, calling attention to the latest executions of juvenile offenders in the Islamic Republic of Iran. The nation has long maintained its status as the second most prolific user of the death penalty, with the world’s highest per-capita rate of executions. In terms of the total number of state-sanctioned killings, Iran lags only behind China, while it is apparently number one among the small handful of countries that still implement the death penalty for persons who were under the age of 18 at the time of their crimes.
Ordinarily, the Iranian judiciary delays the execution of such offenders until after they have passed the internationally-recognized age of majority. However, Iranian law allows for boys to be held legally responsible at the age of 13, and girls at the age of nine. This principle has been variously reaffirmed by Iranian judges after international outcry helped to encourage the review of relevant cases, only for the vast majority of death sentences to be upheld on the basis of the court’s claim that the alleged criminals were sufficiently mature at the time of their offenses.
Despite the rarity of vacated death sentences, the reexamination of juvenile offenders’ cases has generally been regarded as part of an effort to defray some of the international condemnation that almost invariably emerges from public appeals by Amnesty International and other human rights defenders. The Iranian regime’s effort to control its notoriety without altering its practices is presumably also the reason why most juvenile offenders are not executed until after they have turned 18.
But this practice was not repeated in the context of the case most recently highlighted by Amnesty and by Western media. The defendants in question, Mehdi Sohrabifar and Amin Sedaghat, were abruptly executed on April 25, although both boys were still only 17 years old. They had been arrested on allegations that they committed rape at the age of 15, and the boys were held in pretrial detention for two months, during which they were repeatedly beaten by their interrogators.
Amnesty International also reported that the resulting trial, like a great many prosecutions in the Islamic Republic, was unfair and was characterized by a lack of legal representation for the defendants. Furthermore, the verdict in that trial was apparently not communicated to the condemned boys or to their families until the time of their execution. Sohrabifar and Sedaghat were transferred to a new prison, without explanation, just one day before they were hanged. Their families were then invited to visit them, but were not informed that they had been scheduled for execution until the following day, when they were instructed to collect the victims’ bodies. Examination of those bodies indicated that both boys were flogged shortly before their deaths.
By maintaining such secrecy regarding the case, authorities were arguably working to compensate for their decision not to hold back the executions until after the boys had grown somewhat older. That scheme was apparently successful in the sense that it prevented serious outcry about the case from flaring up in advance of the execution. However, with multiple reports stemming from the Amnesty statement, the incident stands to add significantly to international recognition and condemnation of Iran’s human rights violations, particularly as they relate to children.
A Pattern of Child Abuse
Relevant statistics about Iran’s recent and long-term juvenile executions have re-emerged in those reports. CNN pointed out, for instance, that at least 97 incidences have been recorded of juvenile offenders being executed between 1990 and 2018. And according to Al Jazeera, the Islamic Republic put to death at least seven such individuals last year alone, while the total number of executions for people of all ages was recorded as 253. This represents a decline over previous years, owing perhaps entirely to a reform of the nation’s drug laws that ostensibly gets rid of the mandatory death penalty for non-violent traffickers. Nevertheless, the death toll is adequate to maintain Iran’s status as the leading abuser of the death penalty, and the Sohrabifar/Sedaghat case reaffirms that there are still serious human rights issues to be found among non-drug related sentencing.
At the same time, the practice of juvenile executions calls attention to Iran’s broader disregard for the rights of children. Since 1994, the Islamic Republic has technically been a signatory to the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of the Child. This and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights both prohibit the execution of juvenile offenders under all circumstances. Yet the Iranian regime’s adoption of the Convention was accompanied by a proviso declaring itself immune from any aspect of the document that was deemed to be at odds with Iranian law or Islamic law. It is presumably this principle that is invoked by the Iranian judiciary each time it reviews a juvenile death sentence and upholds the death sentence on the basis of Iran’s own conception of legal maturity.
On Tuesday, IranWire referenced Iran’s selective and ultimately arbitrary enforcement of the Convention while reporting on the recruitment and deployment of child soldiers. The article noted that children as young as 13 routinely fought in Iran’s war against neighboring Iraq between 1980 and 1988. More than 22,000 persons under the age of 18 were killed in combat during that time, though it is not known how many minors received training from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in total.
Whatever this number may have been in 1988, it has continued to grow ever since. IranWire notes that human rights groups have warned about child soldiers being deployed from Iran to fight as part of paramilitary groups tasked with the defense of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. At the same time, even among minors who are not actually deployed to combat zones, there is a common trend of appearing in state propaganda that emphasizes youths’ supposed commitment to the IRGC and military defense of Iran and its theocratic revolution.
Although this practice has been roundly condemned throughout the world, IranWire concludes that there is ultimately nothing the international community can do, legally speaking, to halt the practice. The use of child soldiers was banned worldwide in an Optional Protocol added to the Convention on the Rights of the Child in 2000. And although Iran’s Foreign Minister signed the document in 2010, it has never been ratified by the Iranian parliament. Concerted hardline opposition to such ratification serves to underscore the clerical regime’s refusal to be bound by international standards of behavior, even where the rights of children are concerned.
As yet another example of Iran’s disregard for this issue, Iran Human Rights Monitor reported last week that the latest statistics show 4,000 girls between the ages of 10 and 19 as having been married in North Khorasan Province alone, during the Iranian calendar year that ended in March 2019. This reflects a nationwide phenomenon that has left 24,000 girls widowed nationwide before the age of 18. This latter statistic speaks to the fact that the marriages in question are often arranged marriages involving a young girl and a much older man, often motivated by the economic hardship of the girl’s family.
According to Parvaneh Salahshouri, the head of the women’s delegation in the Iranian parliament, a staggering six percent of married Iranian women had their wedding between the ages of 10 and 14. “Early marriages” comprise 24 percent of total marriages annually, according to other government officials. But even this statistic presumably refers only to marriages involving girls aged 13 or older, since this is technically the legal age of marriageability. However, younger girls may be married under certain circumstances, and in other cases, the relevant law is simply not enforced.
Girls’ Hardship Continues Through Adulthood
Noting that the practice of child marriage has been institutionalized by the Iranian government, IHRM identifies it as “one of the examples of violence against women.” In fact, there are potential signs that the situation in the Islamic Republic is presently growing worse for women and for children, and thus especially for young girls. Regime authorities have been engaged in a years-long effort to reinforce hardline principles regarding gender and sexuality, as by pressuring young women to avoid the workforce in favor of starting large families at an early age, and extending bans on mixed-gender activities to include school-aged boys and girls.
Naturally, though, the most prominent example of the ongoing crackdown on women’s rights relates to the laws that mandate Islamic head coverings for all Iranian women, in all public places, even when outside the country or out of public view. Opponents of forced veiling have been boldly protesting the law, with 2018 being marked by a series of protests dubbed “Girls of Revolution Street,” in which participants removed their hijabs while standing on elevated structures in public. Those women were almost invariably arrested, and some have been handed multi-year prison sentences, while a prominent lawyer who sought to defend the protesters was recently given a sentence of 33 years.
The Revolution Street protests were an outgrowth of the “White Wednesdays” movement, which simply encouraged women to wear white hijabs on Wednesday as a symbol of silent protest against the forced veiling laws. The main organizer of that movement, UK-based Iranian activist Masih Alinejad, was previously known for popularizing the “My Stealthy Freedom” campaign, which involved women removing their veils in private spaces, such as in their cars, then posting them to social media. Though seemingly private in nature, such activism generated backlash from regime authorities that is still ongoing to this day.
IHRM reported on Tuesday that hundreds of Iranian women had recently received text messages summoning them to appear before the country’s “morality police” in connection with allegations that they had violated the Islamic dress code while driving their cars. Tehran police commander Hossein Rahimi confirmed via state media that the messages were official warnings, then declared, “The police will identify and deal with vehicles whose passengers remove their veils.” Persons who responded to the summons were reportedly released after signing a statement pledging not to repeat the violation, and they were informed that failure to abide by that statement would result in criminal charges.
Any such prosecution would be in keeping with a wide-ranging crackdown on dissent that has been by no means limited to the sphere of women’s rights. Meanwhile, the use of text messaging as a tool of intimidation reflects the regime’s broader efforts to leverage information technology for the purpose of enforcing hardline principles while limiting the ability of the general population to use those same resources for organizing and open discussion.
Part of a Larger Crackdown
Of course, the internet has presented a number of battlegrounds for that effort, and Iranian authorities may be on track toward issuing a ban on Instagram, the last major social media platform to be officially tolerated in the country. In the meantime, some of those same authorities are taking steps to enforce vaguely defined standards of behavior in virtually all online communications. As reported by the Center for Human Rights in Iran on Monday, a committee within the government’s Supreme Cultural Revolution Council recently passed an amendment to academic disciplinary regulations which could set the stage for punishment of Iranian university students whose online activities are deemed “unethical” by regime authorities.
That term is not defined by the standards, and this opens the door for criminalizing any expression of dissent or any challenge to the country’s hardline, Islamist identity. Indeed, CHRI points to previous instances of Tehran cracking down on students’ online activities in just this way. While some of those examples were attacks on dissent, as when Mojtaba Dadashi was sentenced to three years in prison for criticizing the regime as “un-Islamic,” others were reminiscent of the crackdown on women’s rights and the overall effort to preserve and defend the regime’s worst impulses.
Multiple students have been suspended from school and summoned before government authorities over social media posts containing images in which they violated the Islamic dress code while on vacation abroad. This prompted one student activist to say of the regime’s response to such activities, “Imagine what they will do now that there’s a law against it.”
Accusations of “unethical” behavior carry no defined sentence in Iranian law. However, such accusations can easily be connected to established but vaguely characterized crimes such as “spreading corruption on Earth” or “enmity against God.” These and other such charges may be used as legal justification for capital punishment in the Islamic Republic, and Iran’s latest executions of juvenile offenders strongly suggest that the judiciary would rarely feel compelled to hesitate in doing so.