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Less than a week after an Iranian official stated that courts will be ordered to commute death sentences handed to juvenile offenders, the same official has cast doubt on that decision, saying that only a victim's family could commute a killer's sentence.

The state news agency IRNA quoted Assistant Prosecutor-General Hossein Zabhi as saying on October 15 that death sentences for offenders under 18 will be commuted to life in prison, and in some parole cases reduced to 15 years. The decision was welcomed by human rights groups, which have sought an end to the death penalty altogether in Iran and in particular to its use in minors' cases.

But on October 20, the "Etemad-e Melli" daily quoted Zabhi as saying that "only if the next of kin give their consent can there be a reduction in the punishment," Reuters reported. "The principle of retribution...is not up to the government, rather it is up to the private plaintiff," Zabhi was quoted as saying.

Under Iranian law, the family of a murder victim can pardon a convicted murderer by accepting "blood money," allowing the convict to serve a prison sentence instead.

Zabhi said that Iran's prosecutor-general and supreme court chief, who have to approve all death sentences, would commute the punishment in the case of convicted juvenile drug traffickers, but he did not refer to other capital offenses including rape and murder.

U.S.-based Human Rights Watch reports that Iran has executed six juvenile offenders this year, and says that a moratorium on the death penalty for minors would save at least 130 convicts.

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