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Deadly Message: Rise In Iranian Executions Sends Warning Against Dissent


At least 314 people were executed in Iran in 2021, the most since 2017. This year, Iran is on pace to more than double that number.

Sajad Sanjari was arrested at the age of 15 for fatally stabbing a man he said was trying to rape him. The teenager was sentenced to death by a court in western Iran that rejected his claims of self-defense.

Iran's Supreme Court ordered a retrial owing to guidelines that provided alternative sentences for child offenders unable to comprehend the nature of their crimes. But local judges, citing that Sanjari had begun to grow pubic hair, determined that he was mature enough to understand murder. This time, the Supreme Court upheld his new death sentence.

Sanjari spent more than a decade on death row until he was secretly hanged at the Dizelabad prison in the western province of Kermanshah in August 2021. Sanjari's family had not been informed of his hanging or given an opportunity to say goodbye, according to Amnesty International, and discovered his fate only when a prison official called them to say they could collect his body.

Sanjari was one of three young men who were hanged in 2021 for crimes they had committed when they were under the age of 18, a violation of international conventions protecting children's rights. In death, Sanjari also joined the rapidly growing list of prisoners executed when it was most convenient for the Iranian authorities.

At least 314 people were executed in Iran in 2021, the most since 2017. This year, Iran is on pace to more than double the number of executions it carried out in 2021, raising alarm from rights watchdogs, who have criticized the Iranian authorities for employing unfair trial practices, targeting minority groups, and meting out capital punishment when it does not fit the crime.

The spike in executions -- the majority for murder and increasingly for drug offenses -- is not in response to a corresponding surge in such crimes, according to observers. With the rise coming as Iran faces significant social and economic challenges and no major elections, it appears timing is everything when it comes to executions.

As of June 28, 239 executions have been recorded in Iran this year, according to Iran Human Rights, a pace that puts Iran in reach of the 517 executions it carried out in 2017 and exceeded more than three a day in the past month.

"There is no evidence of any dramatic changes [in crime rates] that would explain this," Mahmood Amiry-Moghaddam, the director of the Norway-based NGO, told RFE/RL by telephone. Furthermore, he added, the Iranian authorities are aware that capital punishment is not an effective deterrent to violent crimes or drug offenses, "so the aim is not to fight crime or deter crime."

What the past decade of research does show, Amiry-Moghaddam says, is that the number of executions in Iran relates very closely to political events. Executions stop, for example, during major elections, "when the world is watching what's happening inside the country, and at the same time the Iranian authorities want to encourage citizens to go out and vote."

When there are protests -- such as those that have taken place consistently since 2021 over water shortages and worsening economic conditions -- the number of executions goes up.

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Amiry-Moghaddam notes that the wave of executions that was recorded in May, when 50 prisoners were put to death, began immediately after mass protests over rising food prices began in southwestern Iran.

May was also marked by labor protests in Tehran, and followed strikes by teachers around the country in April. While Iranians went to the polls to elect a new president in June 2021, anger over water shortages and electricity blackouts led to nationwide protests the next month, and the previous year saw thousands take to the streets to demonstrate against a sharp hike in fuel prices.

In its most recent report on the human rights situation in Iran, the UN Secretary-General's Office expressed alarm that the trend of increased executions was continuing into the new year, noting that many of the prisoners killed were members of minority groups.

The disproportionate number of ethnic and religious minorities subjected to capital punishment in Iran has not gone unnoticed by rights watchdogs. Remarking on an escalation of executions of Baluch and Arabs in early 2021, Diana Eltahawy, deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International, raised "serious concerns that the authorities are using the death penalty to sow fear among disadvantaged ethnic minorities, as well as the wider population."

The death sentences of many Baluch and Arabs, Amnesty said, were based on forced confessions, unfair trials, and rubber-stamped convictions. In its latest annual review of the death penalty around the world -- where Iran consistently takes second spot behind China, which executes prisoners in the high hundreds and in secret -- Amnesty noted that 20 percent of those executed in Iran were Baluch, despite the minority making up only 5 percent of the population.

The number of women executed in 2021 also rose from the previous year, from nine to 14. And in addition to the execution of three youths who were children when sentenced, including Sanjari, rights watchdogs estimate that more than 85 juveniles remain on death row.

Most death sentences in Iran are for murder -- a crime that under Iranian law is punished by "qesas," or retribution in kind. But the number of executions for drug-related offenses rose fivefold in 2021 -- from 23 to 132 -- a trend that Amnesty called a "flagrant violation of international law, which prohibits use of the death penalty for crimes other than those involving intentional killing."

The increase comes despite amendments to Iran's anti-narcotics law in 2017 that appeared intended to address international criticism, but which maintained a mandatory death penalty for the possession of specific types and amounts of illicit drugs.

Amiry-Moghaddam says the legislation fell short because due process was not addressed at all. Drug offenders are tried by revolutionary courts, which he says amplify the arbitrariness and lack of transparency in the Iranian judicial system and subject the accused to torture that can draw out a confession.

"Once they get to confession, in the revolutionary courts there is not so much even a lawyer can do," Amiry-Moghaddam said. "So, the judges in the revolutionary court have much stronger powers, I would say extrajudicial powers, because they can deny a lawyer the case documents."

But ultimately, according to Amiry-Moghaddam, the decision to carry out more executions for murder and drug offenses comes from the establishment, not local judiciaries, and can come after prisoners have waited decades on death row.

The authorities in Tehran, he says, view marginalized members of society like minorities as "low-cost" human expenditures in the effort to achieve a simple goal: to spread as much fear as possible with the aim of suppressing dissent.

"It's a very strong signal that they send to the people," he said. "That we are not only able to, but we are willing to, and we do, take lives."

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