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Iran Report: January 16, 2008

Iran: Child Offenders Face 'Imminent Execution' On Death Row

By Golnaz Esfandiari

Mahmud Asgari, 16, (right) and Ayaz Marhoni, 18, were convicted of raping a young boy and executed in July 2005

Mohammad Latif has spent three years waiting to be hanged.

He was only 14 years old when, in October 2004, a scuffle outside school landed him in prison. It was a cold afternoon in Saveh, southwest of Tehran. Latif says a 16-year-old boy he didn't know attacked him with a knife.

He says the attacker, later identified as Mansur, slashed his hand. Latif says he fought back and then grabbed the knife. He doesn't recall how the knife entered Mansur's neck -- and led to the boy's death.

Latif was arrested and convicted of murder.

Human rights activists in Iran are expressing concern over the fate of several child offenders who have been sentenced to death. They say several of them are facing imminent execution. Iran is one of the only countries in the world that executes individuals for crimes committed when they were minors.

And Iran's judiciary has come under greater international scrutiny, with Amnesty International on January 15 calling on Tehran to abolish death by stoning. Amnesty said that nine women and two men are currently waiting to be stoned to death in Iran.

In most countries, minors under 18 convicted of capital crimes face less severe sentences than adults. There is a broad consensus, reflected in the UN's International Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), that minors cannot fully grasp the consequences of all their actions -- and so, are legally less liable for them than adults.

Growing Up Too Soon

But Nobel Peace Prize laureate and lawyer Shirin Ebadi, who is representing Latif in court, tells RFE/RL's Radio Farda the situation is different in Iran.

"Based on Iranian criminal laws, the age of liability for girls is nine and for boys 15. That means that if a child commits a crime, he or she would be treated as if a 40-year-old person committed that crime," Ebadi says.

Ebadi says that despite her efforts to save Latif's life, he can be executed any time.

"Unfortunately [the death sentence] has been finalized, our appeal demand was rejected. Now the sentence [depends on] the head of Iran's judiciary, Mahmud Shahrudi," Ebadi says.

"I call on him, based on the quality of the case and also on the fact that Iran has joined the [UN's] International Convention On the Rights of the Child, to prevent the execution of a person who wasn't even 15 at the time of the crime."

Latif is just one of many child offenders on death row in Iran, a country that the New York-based organization Human Rights Watch calls the world's leading executor of children and juvenile offenders.

Drewery Dyke of Amnesty International says his organization and other rights groups believe that between 70 and 80 child offenders are facing the death penalty in the Islamic Republic.

"The particular concern with regard to these sort of developments is that there was forward movement in the sixth [parliament] to stop this practice to bring Iran in line with the international obligation that it itself said it would live up to," Dyke says.

Human rights groups say that by executing child offenders, Iran violates its obligations under the CRC. Under the UN convention, any person under the age of 18 is considered a child.

Iran's judiciary often issues death sentences for minors and executes them once they turn 18. There have been also cases where criminal offenders have been executed while they are still minors.

In 2005, a 16-year-old girl was hanged in public for having what was called "illegitimate sexual relations."

But the most recent known case of juvenile execution was the hanging of 21-year-old Makwan Moloudzadeh in December 2007. Moloudzadeh was hanged for a rape he had allegedly committed when he was 13. He had pleaded not guilty and witnesses had reportedly retracted their testimonies.


His execution led to protests and condemnation by human rights groups and the United Nations.

Human rights activists and lawyers representing minor offenders including Moloudzadeh say that sentences against them were handed down following quick and hurried decisions and despite flaws and shortcomings in the proceedings.

Nasrin Sotudeh, a Tehran-based lawyer who represents Soghra Najafpur, a young woman sentenced to death for a murder committed when she may have been only 13 years old, says that despite calls by human rights advocates to ban child executions, Iran's judiciary continues to issue death sentences against juvenile offenders convicted of capital crimes.

"[The judiciary] sends a message to rights activists that not only it doesn't value their activities, but also that it is determined to ignore their calls and demands," Sotudeh says.

During the last year, Amnesty International recorded the execution of five juvenile offenders in Iran. Over the past two years, Iran has stepped up its overall use of the death penalty.

In 2007, some 300 people were reportedly executed, an increase over the 177 known executions that took place in 2006.

Iranian authorities defend their use of the death penalty by saying that it is an effective deterrent and increases security. Rights activists, who say the death penalty is a cruel punishment that breeds violence, reject that claim.

Usually, executions in Iran are by hanging. But according to recent Iranian press reports, two men convicted of homosexual rape in Fars, southern Iran, were sentenced to death by putting them in a sack and throwing it off the top of a cliff.

According to Iran's form of Islamic Shari'a law, homosexuality is punishable by death and the judge can choose from five methods including throwing off a height and demolishing a wall on the offender, a method whose use has not been reported in the past 30 years.

About six months ago, a man convicted of adultery was stoned to death in Ghazvin.

(Radio Farda correspondent Niusha Boghrati contributed to this report.)

Turkmenistan-Iran: Good Relations Take Turn For The Worse

By Bruce Pannier

Presidents Berdymukhammedov (left) and Ahmadinejad -- not so friendly anymore?

Back in June, they were "the best of friends."

At least, that's how Turkmen media portrayed a Tehran meeting last year between President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov and his Iranian counterpart, Mahmud Ahmadinejad. It was an assessment in line with a tradition of friendly ties with Iran maintained by Berdymukhammedov's late predecessor, Saparmurat Niyazov.

It is a tradition that, six months later, appears dead.

In recent days, long-festering strains in the Turkmen-Iranian relationship -- which involves gas, electricity, fishing rights, and water sharing, as well as sensitivities surrounding northern Iran's 3 million ethnic Turkmen -- have been made public. And as Ashgabat and Tehran haggle over gas supplies and other issues, ordinary people in Iran and Turkey are bearing the brunt of the dispute during a winter of record cold.

Iranian-Turkmen talks on the price of gas exports broke down in December. Then, as the New Year began, Ashgabat cut supplies to Iran, blaming it on maintenance work on the pipeline.

But Iranian officials have now made it clear that the issue clearly involves price. Iranian Oil and Gas Minister Gholamhossein Nozari recently said that talks on raising the price for Turkmen natural gas, from the current $75 to $140 per 1,000 cubic meters, would resume only when the supplies were restored. Nozari added that if deliveries did not resume, Iran could refuse to buy Turkmen gas.

The Turkmen government responded that due to Iran's failure to pay for already-delivered gas, Ashgabat lacks the funds to repair the pipeline -- and hence, to resume the flow of gas to Iran.

Iran's national gas company has denied that Iran needed to pay any arrears. And on January 15, Iranian Deputy Oil and Gas Minister Akbar Torkan said Turkmenistan was trying to "put forth new claims" and called the decision to cut supplies in the heart of winter "immoral."

It all marks quite a departure from typical Iranian-Turkmen ties. "Iran was one of the countries with which Niyazov had a charitable relationship," Russian-based political analyst Artem Ulunyan told RFE/RL's Turkmen Service. "It's well-known to many that when there was talk [in Turkmenistan] about the [ethnic] Turkmen population in Iran, Niyazov said, 'don't even think about that, don't ask any questions that could be considered in Tehran as antagonistic,' or he personally would punish those who did."

Iran reciprocated by never speaking about the often bizarre behavior of Niyazov, whom Turkmen media gave a semi-divine status, or about Niyazov's book "Rukhnama" (Guide to the Soul) that Turkmen media and state officials spoke of as a second Koran.

Other Reasons Behind Gas Dispute?

There are other recent events that make the timing of Turkmenistan's suspension of gas supplies intriguing.

On January 4, a group of Iranian Turkmen was fishing illegally in the southern Caspian Sea when Iranian patrol boats spotted them and, according to some sources, rammed the boats and shot dead one of the fisherman. That sparked protests from the ethnic-Turkmen community, some of whom attacked government buildings and torched state vehicles.

After the riots, some 300 ethnic Turkmen were arrested and some reports say many of them are still in detention for antistate activities. Such reports may or may not influence Ashgabat's relations with Iran, but neither are they likely to hurry efforts to restore gas supplies to Iran.

Other potential irritants in the Iranian-Turkmen relationship include the use of water supplies in their border areas and perceived discrimination against ethnic Turkmen, who also complain of Iranian efforts to forcibly convert them from Sunni to Shi'ite Islam.

But the gas dispute is interesting for another reason, one that will not have escaped the notice of the Iranian government.

Over the last year, a succession of high-level U.S. delegations has visited Turkmenistan. The most recent was a visit by U.S. Senator Richard Lugar (Republican, Indiana) to Ashgabat on January 11-13, which came on the heels of visit by Deputy U.S. Secretary of State Erica Barks-Ruggles in December.

Alex Vatanka, a security analyst for Jane's information group, says it is still too early to say whether the United States might be pushing Turkmenistan to take a tougher stance with Iran, Washington's longtime foe. But he said such speculation is warranted, given the geopolitics and Iran's domestic situation.

"The supply of gas from Turkmenistan at this crucial time, winter period, not showing up will make Ahmadinejad more [domestic] enemies," Vatanka says. "And in the Iranian context, I think it's important because that gas from Turkmenistan is not destined for the big cities -- Tehran and so forth -- where Ahmadinejad has almost no support base. Where Ahmadinejad has some support base is in the provinces, like those regions that have been receiving Turkmen natural gas and rely on that gas. And if those people are not getting the gas then the point is, again, they'll be angry above all at the president. So, from a U.S. point of view, this is to undermine the presidency of Ahmadinejad, and I think, timing-wise, this is strategically important because you are only two months away from the parliamentary elections in March and you have presidential elections in 2009."

Vatanka said that if Washington does have enough clout to achieve such a feat, that alone would represent a major change in Central Asian politics. "If the United States has been able to compel or impel [Turkmenistan] to do this, to cut the gas to Iran, the big message obviously there is, wow, the U.S. suddenly has found its leverage in Turkmenistan, a Central Asian state that it has traditionally not been very influential in."

...Or Is Dispute Part Of A Wider Struggle?

But in a region famous for great-power tussles, the United States is hardly the only actor.

Aleksei Miller, the CEO of the Russian gas monopoly Gazprom, which buys most of Turkmenistan's gas, said in December that officials from the United States and European Union have been telling Turkmen officials that the price of Turkmen gas is too low. Miller made those remarks as Gazprom raised the price it pays for Turkmen gas from $100 per 1,000 cubic meters to $130 for the first half of 2008 and $150 for the second half of the year.

Last year, the EU resurrected the idea of a trans-Caspian pipeline to bring Turkmen gas to Europe, where consumers would pay a higher price than Turkmenistan's current customers, who are essentially Russia and Iran.

But there is at least one more theory on the gas cutoffs, which have prompted Iran in turn to reduce gas exports to customers in Turkey. Professor Mehmet Seyfettin Erol of Ghazi University in Turkey speculates that Russia could be behind Ashgabat's newly assertive energy stance.

"As far as I understand, improving ties between the U.S. and Turkey concerns not only Iran but also makes Russia feel uneasy," Erol says. "Russia's refusal in the last few days to increase gas exports to Turkey -- for the first time -- also shows that Russia has some role here. In a situation like this, I think Turkey is currently facing energy pressure led by Iran and Russia. I think there is not any serious problem between Turkmenistan and Iran; the role of Russia is important. I think, and as far as I understand, there is a new game being played, and Russia is the main actor behind this game."

Meanwhile, ordinary people in northern Iran and eastern Turkey are paying the price for the gas cuts. In both areas, temperatures have dropped to record lows ranging from minus 3 to minus 27 degrees Celsius.

(RFE/RL's Turkmen Service and Radio Farda contributed to this report.)

IAEA Says Iran Will Settle Outstanding Nuclear Issues In One Month

By Breffni O'Rourke

Iran's Natanz nuclear facility

Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) have reached an agreement to settle all outstanding matters relating to Iran's nuclear program in four weeks' time.

IAEA chief Muhammad el-Baradei secured the agreement in talks in Tehran at the weekend. But the United States has already said the accord does not touch upon the core issue, namely the refusal of Iran to halt uranium enrichment.

It looks, however, as though it will help unravel some of the past history of Iran's nuclear program, shedding light on activities carried on for many years in conditions of secrecy.

The agreement el-Baradei carried away with him from Tehran on January 13 deals with two issues.

One relates to so-called military-linked studies. These include indications that Iran was examining how to convert uranium dioxide into a semi-refined product called UF4, which can be refined further into gas suitable for an enrichment cascade; and among other things, that Iran was studying designs for missile reentry vehicles.

The second issue relates to radioactive contamination found at an Iranian technical university. The IAEA wants to know how this uranium contamination got there, and it wants access to the individuals working at the university, as well as to the equipment that was used.

These two areas that Iran has agreed to explain within a month are the remaining unanswered questions on a "work plan" formulated by the IAEA last year, and endorsed by the agency's Board of Governors on November 15, 2007.

U.S. White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe, who is traveling with President George W. Bush in the Middle East, on January 13 called the agreement a "step." He said it's useful to know more about Iran's past nuclear activities.

But Johndroe said this does not have any bearing on today's big issue -- that Iran is continuing with uranium enrichment, a process that could feed into a nuclear weapons' program.

Bush made clear at the start of his Mideast tour that the United States intends to pursue its objective of making enrichment a price too high for Iran to pay.

"Economic pressure, financial sanctions, will cause the people inside Iran to have to make a considerate judgment about whether or not it makes sense for them to continue to enrich [uranium] or face world isolation," Bush said.

During his tour, Bush has warned Mideast leaders against Iran's intentions, and has condemned the lack of transparency in Iranian nuclear affairs.

Bush Says Iran Threat Must Be Faced, 'Before It's Too Late'

Bush addresses U.S. troops at Camp Arifjan in Kuwait on an earlier leg of his Mideast tour.

U.S. President George W. Bush, in a keynote speech in the United Arab Emirates today, focused on hopes for democracy in the Middle East, while harshly criticizing Iran's leaders.

Bush said the actions of the Iranian leadership are threatening security around the world.

"Iran is today the world's leading state sponsor of terror," he said. "It sends hundreds of millions of dollars to extremists around the world, while its own people face repression and economic hardship at home."

Bush said the Islamic Republic was subverting hopes for peace around the region by sending arms to the Taliban in Afghanistan, Shi’ite militants in Iraq, and militants in Lebanon. He also said Tehran had defied the United Nations and destabilized the region by failing to be transparent about its nuclear program.

The U.S. president said Washington was rallying friends to confront the threat paused by Iran "before it's too late."

"Iran's actions threaten the security of nations everywhere," Bush said. "So the United States is strengthening our long standing security commitments with our friends in the [Persian] Gulf and rallying friends around the world to confront this danger before it is too late."

Bush said the people of Iran -- whom he called "rich in culture and talent" -- had the right to live under a government that listened to their wishes.

"We know from experience that democracy is the only system of government that yields lasting peace and stability." -- U.S. President George W. Bush

"The day will come when the people of Iran have a government that embraces liberty and justice and Iran joins the community of free nations," he said. "And when that day comes, they'll have no better friend than the United States of America."

Bush was giving a speech in Abu Dhabi on the latest leg of his Middle East tour.

Speaking at the Emirates Centre for Strategic Studies and Research, he said the United States' commitment to fostering democracy in the Middle East was "real, strong, and lasting."

"The United States joins you in your commitment to the freedom and security of this region. And we will not abandon you to terrorists or extremists," he said.

Bush compared that commitment to the United States' long involvement in helping democracy take root in many Asian countries, such as postwar Japan.

He welcomed democratic reforms being undertaken in several gulf states, and urged other Middle Eastern nations to take up democracy.

"We know that democracy is the only form of government that treats individuals with the dignity and equality that is their right," Bush said. "We know from experience that democracy is the only system of government that yields lasting peace and stability."

In his speech, Bush also addressed the Middle East peace process, trying to encourage support from his Gulf Arab allies.

Bush is on a weeklong Middle East tour that has so far taken him to Israel, the Palestinian territories, Kuwait, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates. He is scheduled to travel to Saudi Arabia and Egypt before returning to the United States on January 16.

Authorities Target More Iranian Student Activists Ahead Of Elections

By Farangis Najibullah and Mohammad Zarghami

Low profile: Students in Tehran

Universities in Tehran and other Iranian cities have reportedly taken "disciplinary measures" against some 60 student activists amid a crackdown ahead of parliamentary polls in March.

Meanwhile, at least 20 leftist students remain in Tehran's Evin prison after being arrested in December during protests on Iranian Student Day.

The punitive measures target around 60 students in several universities in Tehran, Mazandaran, Isfahan, Mashhad, and other cities, but student activists say they won't be cowed and vow to continue protests for democratic change.

Amin-e Nazari, the leader of the Association of Islamic Students in Hamadan University, told Radio Farda that the most recent action involved four members of the association being suspended from the university, while six others have received an official warning.

Nazari says the students believe that authorities want to silence outspoken students who are critical the government's policies. "As the [March 14 parliamentary] elections approach, the authorities want the groups who criticize them to stay silent, so that they can arrange an election show with the people," Nazari says.

'Rebel Students'

Salman Yazdanpanah, who calls himself a pro-democracy student, has been temporarily expelled from Tehran University. He told Radio Farda that the authorities accuse him of insulting university personnel and taking part in unauthorized demonstrations.

Yazdanpanah says he has never insulted any university staff. He says he was punished "in connection with our activities at the university, in connection with the materials we wrote in our publication and for participating in demonstrations." "I wrote in my defense that not one university employee ever came and told me, 'Salman has insulted me.' These charges are false," Yazdanpanah says.

The disciplinary measures follow the arrest of at least 20 leftist students in Tehran and other cities in December. Most of them are still in Evin prison's notorious Section 209, where detainees are held in solitary confinement. Section 209 is solely controlled by Iran's Intelligence Ministry, and even Evin authorities are said to have no access to the section.

The security officials have reportedly called them "rebel students" and family members have been told that their children "had acted against national security."

However, the imprisoned students have not been officially charged. Their parents and relatives have protested the arrests and asked the country's top leaders and the United Nations office in Tehran to help secure their release.

No Visitors Allowed

Despite promises from judiciary officials, the parents have not been allowed to meet with their arrested children.

According to Nasreen Abdullahi Musavi -- whose daughter, Ilnaz, is among those detained -- Evin authorities told parents this week that the imprisoned students "are still being interrogated" and that decisions about their cases would be made "very soon."

The leftist students, whose main slogan is "Freedom and Equality," initiated demonstrations at Tehran University in December to mark Student Day. Other groups soon joined, including students from Islamic schools, and the protests spread to other Iranian cities. Several students were arrested in provinces, but most of them have reportedly been released.

The demonstrators criticized President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's government for cracking down on dissent on campuses and elsewhere, and they called for broader democratic changes -- such as freedom of political and social organizations -- and improved human rights.

Amin-e Nazari says the students' activities would continue despite the arrests and punishments by the authorities because "no one is afraid of disciplinary committees and prisons anymore."

"After all of those measures, have universities become quieter? Actually, the opposite is true. The university has become more decisive," Nazari says. "As one of my friends said, when they arrest or suspend our classmates, obviously we cannot remain silent."

Iranian journalist Iraj Jamsheedi told RFE/RL that the student movements have gathered support among Iranian society "because their demands reflects those of the majority of the Iranian people."

Kabul Pleads With Tehran To Delay Refugee Expulsions

By Farangis Najibullah

Iranian guard watches over Afghan refugees awaiting deportation in May

She's lived in Iran her entire life, but Siddiqa Rezai can't call it home.

Rezai, 20, is the daughter of Afghan refugees who fled war in their homeland 25 years ago. Until now, her family of eight has lived in the town of Boen-Zahra in Qazvin Province, west of Tehran. Rezai and her five siblings were all born there. It's the only home they've ever known.

Rezai's father works as a brickmaker. Most of his income goes to pay rent. Speaking Farsi with a strong Iranian accent, Rezai tells RFE/RL she would like to study or work to contribute to her family's income but can't "because all doors are closed to Afghan refugees."

She says she wanted to attend university but "wasn't allowed."

"I was told that I have had only the right to go to school, but I have no right to be admitted to university," she says. "I'm looking for a job in Boen-Zahra, but businesses say, 'We don't employ Afghans.' I can't find a job."

Luckier Than Most

Nevertheless, Rezai's parents consider themselves "lucky." They have legal refugee status, a roof over their heads, and food on the table.

Others are less fortunate. An estimated 1.5 million Afghans living in Iran without legal registration face a threat of immediate deportation or arrest. Last week, Interior Ministry officials said they had warned Afghan illegal immigrants to leave Iran or face up to five years in prison.

Iran began forcibly repatriating Afghan refugees in April, when the Interior Ministry said it would send 1 million immigrants back to Afghanistan by March 2008. Despite protests from Kabul, tens of thousands Afghans have so far been forced out.

According to Afghan refugees in Iran, the police have rounded up Afghan men, put them in buses, and dropped them off along the Iranian-Afghan border -- often without even informing their families. Iran's semi-official Fars news agency quotes officials from the Foreigners' Police as saying that as many as 20,000 Afghans were expelled in the first three days of the latest refugee expulsion drive alone.

According to official figures, there are some 900,000 legally registered Afghan refugees living in Iran. Most refugees, regardless of their legal status, work in construction or other low-paying manual jobs.

Tehran has steadily increased pressure on refugees over the past year in a bid to drive them out. Some Afghan immigrants complain that without official permission, they can no longer obtain medical insurance, open bank accounts, or buy homes.

More importantly, refugees' children are denied access to public schools unless they pay tuition fees that many of them cannot afford.

Voices Of Concern

Nobel Peace Prize-winner Shirin Ebadi, an Iranian lawyer and rights activist, is involved in defending the refugee children's right to education.

"Children born to mixed families -- Iranian and Afghan parents -- don't have passports, because the Iranian government has not given them passports, so they are deprived of their right to education," Ebadi tells RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan. "Afghans have set up several schools in Tehran for these children, but Iran's Ministry of Education does not officially recognize these schools."

The scene at a UNHCR camp for Afghan refugees in Herat, western Afghanistan, in October (epa)

Tehran has defended its decision on expulsion, saying the plan targets only illegal immigrants. The Interior Ministry says those who have been expelled have the right to return if they obtain the proper documents from Iranian consulates in Afghanistan.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) office in Kabul confirms that Iran so far has mostly expelled unregistered immigrants. Nader Farhad, a UNHCR spokesman in Kabul, tells RFE/RL that Iran has expelled some 360,000 Afghan immigrants since April -- and that the majority of them had been living in Iran illegally.

Authorities in Kabul are concerned.

A spokesman for the Afghan Foreign Ministry, Sultan Ahmad Beheen, told reporters in Kabul this week that the ministry had not been officially informed about Tehran's latest decision. He said that following the recent media reports, the ministry contacted the Iranian Embassy in Kabul to discuss the fate of Afghan refugees.

"These reports are inconsistent with previous discussions and agreements we had [with Iran over the refugee issue], and we hope that at least during the cold winter months, the Afghans will not be forced to leave Iran," Beheen said.

Beheen added that a high-level Afghan delegation would go to Tehran soon to ask the Iranian authorities to delay the deportation of Afghans for a few months to allow Kabul to prepare for their return.

Amid a violent insurgency in its south, Afghanistan is finding it hard to cope with thousands of internally displaced people as well as millions of former refugees repatriated from Pakistan and Iran.

Most of them have congregated in the already overburdened capital, Kabul, and other cities, adding to unemployment and housing problems. Thousands live in tents and makeshift homes on city outskirts, or rent places in the poorest areas.

Since 2002, some 4 million refugees have returned to Afghanistan under a coordinated voluntary repatriation of refugees from Iran and Pakistan. They receive limited assistance from the UNHCR to resettle in their homeland.

(RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Zarif Nazar contributed to this report.)

Iranian Criminals Lose Hands And Feet As Shari'a Law Imposed

By Bruce Pannier

Amputation as a punishment had not been practiced for several years in Iran

Five convicted criminals in southeastern Iran have received the seldom-used form of punishment of amputation.

The amputation sentences were carried out in Zahedan, the capital of Iran's southeastern Sistan-Baluchistan Province. The five men were found guilty of armed robbery, hostage taking, and firing at police, though officially they were convicted of "acting against God" and "corruption upon this Earth."

Amputation as a punishment is legal in Iran, but there have been no reports of it being used for several years. It is unknown if the meting out of such a punishment now is a new trend or if this was an isolated incident in only one region of the country.

Cross Amputation

With doctors watching, the convicted men's right hands and left feet were amputated. Traditionally, the right hand is amputated for a first serious offense and the left foot for a second serious offense. The right hand-left foot amputation is referred to as "cross amputation."

The Iranian Student News Agency (ISNA) reported the amputations on January 6, though it is not clear when the sentences were carried out or if the amputations were done in prison or in public.

International rights organizations have long condemned punishing people through amputations. Amnesty International, for example, calls it the "cruel, inhuman, and degrading punishment of judicial amputation," and considers it a form of torture.

The deputy director of the Paris-based International Federation of Human Rights and head of the League for Defense Of Human Rights in Iran, Abdolkarim Lahidji, told RFE/RL's Radio Farda that such amputations are considered torture and an illegitimate form of punishment.

"Amputating hands, flogging, all of these kind of [sentences] that are used in Iranian Islamic laws as punishment, all of these are considered torture, [and] torture has been banned in [international treaties]," Lahidji said.

Amputation as legal punishment is still practiced in a number of countries, among them Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Islamic regions of Nigeria. They were also common in Afghanistan under the Taliban. Parts of sub-Saharan West Africa have also recently witnessed amputations as a form of intimidation used by various political factions.

Many Iranians are horrified by the punishments.

In a phone-in with Radio Farda, one listener from Tehran said, "These sentences of cutting off hands and legs are barbaric."

Another listener, Leila from Tehran, agreed with that opinion. "I'm totally against these [sentences], the actions of those who amputate hands and legs are satanic and a crime; the team of doctors who was present there are accomplices to the crime," she said.

But Javad Harati, from the city of Isfahan, said he thinks amputations serve a purpose. "I think these sentences should be carried out so that the enemies of Iran and those who are against the revolution don't even think about [working against the revolution]," Harati said.

Pre-Islamic Tradition

Ahmad Ghabel, an Islamic scholar from Qom, told Radio Farda that the use of amputation is a relic of laws from a much earlier time, and not necessarily only from Islamic countries.

"The origin of these [criminal] codes goes back to the time when they were declared. They were the requirements of governing at the time of the Prophet Muhammad. At that time these punishments were accepted in the East, and the West as well as the Middle East. Therefore the use of this code [now] is doubtful," Ghabel said.

In Iran, it is more typical for courts to pass death sentences on those convicted of committing serious crimes: the same day that ISNA reported the amputations, there were reports that two men had been hanged.

A former police official found guilty of stabbing a man to death and raping his fiancee near the central city of Arak was hanged in public while a second man convicted of murdering two people was hanged in Arak prison.

The amputations also come just six months after a man was stoned to death in Qazvin Province, west of Tehran, for alleged adultery. The stoning was widely condemned by the international community and by many Islamic leaders in Iran.

Iranian media report that 16 people have been hanged so far in 2008. In 2007, more than 290 convicts were executed, many in public.

(Javad Kooroshy and Golnaz Esfandiari of RFE/RL's Radio Farda contributed to this report)

Iran: Two Women's Rights Activists Released From Prison

By Farangis Najibullah

Jelveh Javaheri, one of the arrested activists

Two prominent Iranian women’s right activists have been released from prison on bail, while the families of students arrested last month say the authorities have agreed to let them visit the students in prison.

Maryam Hosseinkhah and Jelveh Javaheri, Iranian Internet journalists arrested in November and December, respectively, were released on bail this week from Tehran’s notorious Evin prison. They had been held on charges related to their writings and activities, in particular with inciting public opinion, propaganda against the state, and the publication of false information on websites.

The two women, both in their early 30s, are members of the One Million Signatures Campaign, a movement that promotes equal rights for women in Iranian society. They have been contributors on Zanestan, WeChange, and other Iranian feminist websites.

Hosseinkhah and Javaheri were freed on January 2 after their bail was reduced to some $5,000. Originally, a court in Tehran had demanded some $105,000 for Hosseinkhah’s bail and around $50,000 for Javaheri. Their defense team, which includes Nobel Peace Prize-winner Shirin Ebadi, told RFE/RL’s Radio Farda it had pressured authorities to reduce the bail to secure their release.

“We want to ask our judiciary why the two women had to spend this time in detention,” one of the lawyers, Nasrin Sotoudeh, said. “Why was their freedom delayed by requesting an extremely expensive bail? They had to spend quite a lengthy period of time in temporary detention.”

Media and women’s rights activists both in and outside of Iran welcomed the news of their release, and called on Iranian authorities to drop the charges against them. They also urged Tehran to free other women and journalists imprisoned on similar charges.

“Hosseinkhah and Javaheri were imprisoned for no other reason than the views they expressed,” the Paris-based media watchdog Reporters Without Borders said in a statement. “The authorities have been waging an all-out policy to deter people from expressing themselves freely on the Internet. Around 30 cyberdissidents have been arrested in the past year.”

One Million Signatures

Several other members of the One Million Signatures Campaign still remain in Evin and Iran’s other prisons. In particular, campaign members have told RFE/RL that Ronak Safarzadeh and Hana Abdi were arrested in October and November by local Intelligence and Security Ministry officials in Kurdistan Province.

Since the campaign’s start in August 2006, criminal cases have been launched against at least 40 of its members. Most of them were accused of spreading propaganda against the state.

At least 33 women were arrested in March this year for taking part in a peaceful protest. They were subsequently released.

The signature campaign says it is a nonpolitical movement. It seeks to present a petition with 1 million signatures urging the parliament to change what the campaigners call “discriminatory laws against women.”

It is not only the signature campaign that has come under an intensifying crackdown by authorities on student protesters, journalists, “un-Islamic dress,” and even Internet cafes.

Last month, around 20 students, joined in an effort called “Leftist Students Campaigning for Freedom and Equality,” were arrested during peaceful marches in Tehran and elsewhere to mark Iranian Students Day.

This week, families of some of the students told Radio Farda that they had finally been allowed to meet their imprisoned sons and daughters in Evin. The first meetings are scheduled to take place on January 5.

(RFE/RL’s Radio Farda contributed to this report.)