The Islamic Republic of Iran has a pattern of issuing low standards for capital punishment; these patterns contribute to Iran having the second highest execution rate in the world. Iran has an international duty to award basic human rights to political prisoners and issue punishments proportional to crimes.
In 1988, the founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran issued an order to massacre 30,000 political prisoners. There was no investigation by the Iranian government or the international community into these events and the trend of excessive executions continues. Iran has already executed nearly 400 individuals in 2017 and executed 545 in 2016. The executed prisoners represent minority groups in Iran, such as the twenty Kurdish Sunnis executed in 2016, one of whom was arrested for distributing pamphlets advocating for the rights of Sunni Muslims in Iran. Furthermore, ninety individuals currently on death row are under the age of eighteen.
In addition to the loose requirements for capital punishment sentences, Iran’s prisons often treat prisoners inhumanely. For example, Raja’i Shar prison, located outside the city of Karaj, has sealed all exterior openings, covered windows with metal sheets, and installed listening devices and cameras in every area of the prison. The prison has also banned family visits and refused to provide outside medical attention to ill prisoners. In August 2017, about seventeen of the fifty-three political prisoners held in maximum security at Raja’I Shar prison went on a hunger strike in protest of the deplorable conditions. Some were then punished with twelve days in solitary confinement and conditions have not changed.
Iran’s execution rates violate several of their legal obligations. In 2013, Iran amended the Islamic Penal Code to allow prisoners under the age of eighteen on death row to be retried. In 2016, Iran assured the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child that it would systemically follow this amendment. Iran ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child twenty years ago. These promises have not been satisfied. Article 37 of The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child provides that capital punishment must not be imposed on juveniles. Article 6 of The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Iran signed in 1975, states that “sentence of death may be imposed for only the most serious crimes” and reiterates that the death sentence cannot be imposed on minors.
Additionally, Iran enacted the Charter on Citizen’s Rights in 2016. This charter awards the right of freedom of speech and expression to every citizen within the limits of the law. Imprisoning and imposing capital punishment on individuals who demand human rights within Iran potentially violates the Charter.
Iran’s execution rate is disproportionate to the crimes of the death row prisoners; the majority of offenders have been incarcerated for drug related offenses or openly criticizing the government. The blanket use of capital punishment reflects the Iranian government’s efforts to minimize the rights of minority groups in Iran. To combat these underlying injustices, the international human rights community must address Iran’s violations of the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
In July 2017, the Iranian Parliament approved amendments to the Law to Combat Drugs. These measures would lead to an increase in the threshold for capital punishment in drug trafficking arrests and could remove up to 5000 prisoners from death row. However, these efforts are strongly disputed and have not yet been enacted.
By formally recognizing Iran’s former crimes and violations of the Covenant, the international community can open discourse regarding the lack of rights for minority groups and human rights activists in Iran. The UN Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner recently released a report on Iran’s human rights situation after a Special Rapporteur was mandated in 2011. The report acknowledges that Iran received seventy recommendations regarding inhumane treatment of citizens and Iran has yet to implement any of them as of March 2017. The Special Rapporteur also recommends that a restructuring of the Iranian government is required to fully address the human rights concerns and status of political prisoners. Increasing the threshold for capital punishment, however, is a step in the right direction.