The prevailing use of the death penalty in Iran intersects with several issues including poverty, drug trafficking, as well as racial and ethnic divisions.
Often, alleged criminals do not have access to a fair trial and due process before being placed on death row. Children constitute a particularly vulnerable demographic, and authorities do not exempt children under 18 from receiving the death penalty. Boys as young as fifteen and girls at nine can be tried as adults in Iran, and in 2014, the United Nations estimated that at least 160 children were on death row. In 2016, Amnesty International definitively named and located forty-nine children at risk of the death sentence. The children spend an average of seven years on death row, and many spend more than a decade. Despite being a party to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, Iran maintains the death sentence as a form of punishment for convicted minors.
Recently, Iran amended its 2013 Penal Code to allow for judges to replace the death penalty with an alternative punishment that would be based on discretionary assessments of the child’s mental capacity and maturity. Despite these reforms, the death penalty remains a potential form of punishment for juvenile offenders in Iran. Maintaining the death penalty as punishment for juvenile offenders is a direct violation of international standards for children’s rights codified in the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Those convicted before the 2013 reforms can request a new trial, but many are unaware of that right. In practice, these reforms have done little to protect children as abuse pervades the justice system. Often, children will be held without access to a lawyer, and some face coercion to confess to crimes using methods of torture.
International human rights advocacy organizations have reported particularly egregious cases. For example, in July 2016, Amnesty International reported on the execution of Hassan Afshar, who authorities arrested at 17 for “forced male to male anal intercourse.” Another case involves a young woman, Zeinab Sookian. She is in prison for confessing to killing her husband, whom she married when she was 15. She was arrested and convicted at 17 years old. She claims authorities coerced her to confess to killing him by means of torture and beatings, but the court ignored her claims and sentenced her to death. She married a fellow inmate who fathered her child. Under Iranian law, a conviction of murder results in the death sentence, but the law prohibits the execution of a pregnant woman. Since giving birth to a stillborn child on September 30, 2016, she faces imminent execution. The cases of Hassan and Zeinab are exemplary of the injustices children face in Iran’s justice system.
The Convention on the Rights of the Child codifies protections for individuals under the age of 18. The Convention has provisions to protect children accused of violating the state’s penal law under Article 40. Iran violates specific provisions under this article including several of the guarantees provided under Article 40(2) b. These include the child’s right to legal assistance and the right not to be compelled to give testimony. Amnesty International reports evidence of children in Iran being forced to confess, and that they often are sentenced to death without having access to a lawyer. Under Article 40 (4), the Convention states a child should be “dealt with in a manner appropriate to their well-being and proportionate to both their circumstances and the offense.” The death penalty is not only inappropriate, but inhumane as a punishment for children who have committed even the gravest offense. As such, Iran should make its use of the death penalty against minors unlawful.