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Iran Nobel Winner Seeks End To Juvenile Executions

Shirin Ebadi
TEHRAN (Reuters) -- Eighteen-year-old Behnam Zare's last words on his way to be hanged were: "I want to be alive. I am full of remorse. Is there anyone to save me?"

The tape of his final phone call was replayed to journalists, rights activists, and tearful parents of those on death row in Iran at a conference to campaign for ending the execution of juvenile offenders.

Shirin Ebadi, winner of the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize for her human rights work in Iran, said Zare was one of at least six juvenile offenders executed by Iran's judiciary since March.

Like the other six, he was held in a detention center until he was deemed old enough to be executed without attracting international criticism, she said.

Zare was arrested when 15 after a fight that ended in the death of a schoolmate. He was hanged in October after he turned 18.

"He called me before being executed. He was so scared and begged for help," she said after replaying Zare's last call at the conference, organized by Ebadi's Association for Defending Human Rights.

"A sorrow-filled story of children and juveniles' rights in Iran is a never-ending story," she said.

Sharia Law

Human rights groups and the European Union have criticized Iran for sentencing minors to death.

Since 2000, Iran has said it only carries out the death penalty when a prisoner reaches the age of 18 and rejects Western accusations of rights abuses, saying it is following Islamic Sharia law.

A judiciary official said in October that teenagers guilty of capital crimes would not face execution unless the crime was murder. In that case, under Sharia, a victim's family could demand death as retribution or agree to commute the sentence.

But death sentences have continued to be imposed on young offenders convicted of murder, rape, or drug smuggling, in direct contravention of the international Treaty on Civil and Political Rights, Ebadi said.

In Iran, men are deemed adults aged 15, girls at aged 9.

"Why should children face an adult penalty like the death sentence?" Ebadi said adding about 150 minors were on death row.

Since January 2005, Iran has been responsible for 26 of 32 known executions of juveniles offenders worldwide, New York-based Human Rights Watch said in October. It said Iran was one of only five countries to do so.

"In the past 18 years, 41 people have been executed for crimes they committed as a minor. Nine of them were under 18 [when executed]," rights activist Asiyeh Amini told the conference. "One of them was a girl."

Ebadi, who represents several young offenders on death row, said Iran had the highest rate of sentencing minors to death. She said the demand to end juvenile executions did not contradict Islamic Sharia law.

"Top Iranian clerics some 80 years ago banned juvenile execution in the country," she said, adding that 95 percent of juveniles were sentenced to death for murder.