By Pooya Stone
On Thursday, the Iranian government came under renewed pressure from human rights advocates after authorities announced that they had carried out a sentence of amputation on a prisoner convicted of multiple counts of theft.
Tehran’s theocratic system of law tends to adhere to a very strict interpretation of sharia, and a guiding principle for the punishment of criminals is Qisas, or “retribution-in-kind.” Colloquially, this is referred to in the West as “an eye for an eye,” and in Iran, that phrase is sometimes interpreted literally.
To this day, Iranian courts continue to order the removal of eyes, fingers, and other body parts. Under pressure from the international community and domestic human rights activists, the actual application of these sorts of punishments has seemingly diminished over time. But as the regime’s announcement on Wednesday makes clear, the phenomenon has never stopped altogether.
Iranian authorities amputated a man’s hand for alleged thievery. Although this news was published, the Iranian judiciary is notoriously selective about its disclosures, leaving human rights groups with the responsibility of compiling more complete information about executions and other forms of corporal punishment or prisoner abuse across Iran.
On October 10, World Day Against the Death Penalty, some of these groups released their findings regarding the number of hangings that had been carried out in Iranian prisons since the beginning of the year. While the estimates all exceeded 200 and ranged at least as high as 273 based on multiple reports for each case, fewer than 70 of these killings were officially announced by Iranian authorities. This discrepancy can be expected to fuel suspicion that other aspects of Iran’s corporal punishment policies are similarly worse than acknowledged.
But regardless of the actual frequency of state-mandated amputations, the known statistics regarding the death penalty are sufficient on their own to generate virtually constant international outcry. Even judging by the lowest independent estimates for the number of hangings this year, it is clear that Iran is still maintaining its status as the nation with the highest rate of executions per capita. Only China, with its population of over a billion, exceeds Iran in terms of raw numbers.
Interestingly, Iran's government excessive and often illegal use of the death penalty was given renewed attention on the same day as the latest amputation sentence came to light. It was then that Javaid Rehman, the special rapporteur for the situation of human rights in Iran, presented his latest report to the United Nations General Assembly.
These negative human rights trend roughly coincides with the appointment, in March 2019, of Ebrahim Raisi as the new head of the judiciary.
Raisi played a prominent role in the “death commissions” that carried out a massacre of political prisoners in the summer of 1988. That incident, which primarily targeted the country’s leading opposition group, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran, is estimated to have resulted in about 30,000 deaths over the course of several months. Public outrage over the massacre has gradually grown as more information has leaked out about a chapter in Iranian history that had largely been buried by the regime.
That outrage has also spread to Western supporters of the Iranian Resistance movement, many of whom repeated their calls for an international investigation into the massacre this week. On Wednesday, the European Parliament hosted a conference on the topic attended by Maryam Rajavi, the President- the National Council of Resistance of Iran.
The presentation coincided with the NCRI’s publication of a new book, Crime Against Humanity, which reportedly includes previously undisclosed details about the massacre’s victims, the locations of some of their secret mass graves, and more. Afterward, a number of MEPs delivered their own remarks denouncing the Iranian regime’s human rights record and calling upon their respective governments to made improvements in this area a condition for any future expansion in trade relations with Iran.
The UN special rapporteur made other specific demands on the same day, before the Human Rights Committee. Amnesty International did the same on the following day, focusing on a different aspect of Iran’s “abhorrent” reliance on corporal punishment.
Javaid Rehman focused particular attention on the persistent issue of death sentences being implemented for defendants who were under the age of 18 at the time of their alleged crimes. Such executions are categorically banned under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and also the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Iran has signed both documents but routinely ignores the relevant provision while arguing that it represents undue cultural imposition on Iran’s hardline Islamist legal system.
Iran is one of the very last countries on Earth to allow the execution of juvenile offenders. And alleged criminals may be subject to the death penalty as soon as they are considered mature under Iranian law. For boys, this point is defined as age 13 lunar years, and for girls, it is only nine. In actual practice, the judiciary typically holds convicts on death row until after they have passed age 18, in what is likely part of an effort to hold some international criticism at bay. Yet it is consistently obvious that the regime is not so concerned with its human rights reputation that it is willing to reconsider the practice altogether.
Rehman’s report notes that at least seven juvenile offenders were put to death in Iranian prisons last year and that at least five have been killed so far in 2019. A further 90 such individuals are known to be sitting on death row, awaiting a sentence that could be implemented arbitrarily and without warning, any day.
As with the overall execution figures and the figures for other forms of capital punishment, there is always a looming possibility that the reality of juvenile execution is worse than what has been made known to the public. The danger also exists of this practice growing worse under Raisi’s ongoing leadership of the Iranian judiciary.
That leadership seemingly coincides with a reduction in the government's concerns about its international reputation and an increase in its preoccupation with presenting an image of strength to the Iranian people. This was the apparent message conveyed by Iranian authorities’ unusual public announcement of having carried out a sentence of amputation. Wednesday’s statement from the justice department of Mazandaran Province explained that the sentence was part of a “policy to crack down, severely and without hesitation, on those who disrupt public order and security and steal public funds.”