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Iran: Rights Groups Shine Spotlight On Capital Punishment

An Iranian official has confirmed reports published by some media as well as Amnesty International that the country's Supreme Court has approved the death sentence against a woman convicted of adultery. A judiciary spokesman, Jamal Karimirad, has told Reuters that the judiciary must still decide whether the woman will be stoned or hanged. The news follows reports that another woman -- a mentally disabled 19-year-old -- faces imminent execution for "acts contrary to chastity."

Prague, 21 December 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Along with China and the United States, Iran has one of the highest execution rates in the world.

In the last two decades, thousands of political prisoners, drug traffickers, and drug addicts have been executed in the Islamic Republic.

In 2003, more than 100 executions were recorded in Iran. Human rights groups, however, say the real number of people put to death is much higher.

"Unfortunately, every year there are some 300 to 400 executions in Iran," said Abdolkarim Lahiji, vice president of the International Federation of Human Rights Leagues (IFHRL). "When we look at a number of executions, we have to consider it in proportion with the population of that country. Considering the population of China and the U.S., I have to say that Iran is on top of the list."

Death sentences have also been issued for women convicted of adultery and minors.

In recent months, several cases have sparked national and international indignation. Last August, a 16-year-old girl, Atefeh Rajabi, was hanged in public in the town of Neka for having "illegitimate sexual relation."

Now, human rights groups are expressing concern over the possible execution of two other women in Iran. Hajieh Esmailvand and a woman identified only as Leila M. both face morality-related charges.

"Hajieh Esmailvand was sentenced to five years' imprisonment and the Supreme Court then said that the sentenced should be followed by execution through stoning," said Nicole Choueiry, Middle East press officer for Amnesty International. "The reason for this, as the court says, is caused by adultery with an unnamed man who committed the adultery when he was 17 years old. We know that she was imprisoned in the town of Jolfa since January 2000."
The European Parliament has strongly condemned the execution of children in Iran and called on the Iranian authorities to halt the practice of stoning.

The Supreme Court reportedly ordered Esmailvand's stoning sentence to be carried out before 21 December. However, a judiciary spokesman told Reuters on 18 December that there have been no orders yet to carry out the sentence. He added that the sentence could still be suspended by the head of the judiciary.

Leila, 19, was sentenced on charges of having had intercourse with blood relatives and giving birth to an illegitimate child. Reports say the mother of Leila, who has the mental age of an 8-year-old, forced her into prostitution as a child.

Leila is now in prison, awaiting her fate. But as Amnesty's Choueiry notes, the Supreme Court has yet to approve her death sentence.

"Since the death sentence against Leila M. has not been passed yet, we think there is also some room for changing the death sentence and this is why we've been urging the Supreme Court not to pass and to confirm this sentence," Choueiry said. "Three women this year have been sentenced to death in Iran with regards to execution of minors. We have many concerns because Iran has executed at least three child offenders in 2004."

Choueiry says Amnesty is hoping to raise international attention on the two cases in a bid to prevent the death sentences from being carried out.

"Amnesty international would like to appeal to the Iranian authorities to reconsider their sentence against against both Leila M. and Hajieh Esmailzad because there is still a way for saving their lives, we equally call on our members on people all over the world to pressure the Iranian government to do the same," Choueiry said.

According to Amnesty, 10 minors have been put to death in Iran since 1990.

In October, some 20 Iran-based human rights groups, including the Center of Human Rights Defenders founded by Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Shirin Ebadi, called on the head of Iran's judiciary (Aya Shahrudi) not to sentence minors to death.

The IFHRL's Lahiji notes that Iran condemns young alleged offenders to death and then executes them when they turn 18.

"According to our figures, 25 teenagers under the age of 18 who have been sentenced to death are awaiting their unfair sentences to be applied," Lahiji said.

Last fall, the European Parliament strongly condemned the execution of children in Iran and called on the Iranian authorities to halt stoning and to prevent any further application of the death penalty to minors.

Iran's judiciary recently announced that it has sent a bill to parliament that, if approved, would scrap the death penalty and lashings for offenders under the age of 18.

Despite the heightened concern over juvenile execution in Iran, Lahiji say the number of executions overall has decreased in recent years. He cites two reasons for this. "First, as [the authorities] say, they are trying to "legitimize" the executions," Lahiji said. "In that regard, the death sentences have to be approved by the Supreme Court in Tehran. And the other reason is international pressure and the struggle by human rights organizations under which political executions have very much decreased in Iran. "

Amnesty calls the death penalty the most inhumane punishment of all, one that violates the right to life as proclaimed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL focusing on Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is one of the authors of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.