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Iran's Public Executions Prompt Fatal Reenactment

According to a report by Amnesty International to be released on October 10, Iran executed 560 people in 2012.
When 12-year-old Mehran placed a noose around his neck and hanged himself with the help of his younger brother, suicide was the furthest thing from his mind.

Instead, the boy was playing a game. And his fatal inspiration was a public execution of the sort often seen in his home province of Kermanshah in western Iran.

Mokhtar Khandani, a journalist working for the Mokrian News Agency, remembers the details well. Immediately after the boy died on August 31, Khandani traveled to the little village of Kelashlulem to talk to a family unable to understand what had just happened.

"I talked to the family members, with his mother, his father, and his uncles," Khandani says. "They told me the younger brother prepared it, and the 12-year-old brother, Mehran, hanged himself. The younger brother thought Mehran was joking. After some time the younger brother became scared and let the grownups know. Unfortunately when they arrived they saw the child had already passed away."

The boys' game lasted only a few minutes, from the time it took to throw a rope over a lamppost and for Mehran to stand on a cart and slip the noose around his neck to when his 8-year-old brother pulled the cart away.

Then, suspended in the air, Mehran did a gallows dance that did not just imitate a public hanging -- it was one.

Mehran is an unexpected victim of a culture of public executions that remains pervasive in the Islamic republic.

According to a report by Amnesty International to be released on October 10, Iran executed 560 people in 2012. That includes 330 executions acknowledged by the government in the Iranian press, 195 executions reported by activists but not acknowledged by the government, and 35 suspected secret executions in Vakilabad prison in the northeastern city of Mashhad near the Afghan border.

Most of the executions were for drug-related offenses.

Deterrent Or Desensitizer?

Most of Iran's executions take place in prisons. But 63 executions took place last year -- and dozens more this year -- in public.

The rationale, under the country's harsh legal code, is that public executions offer a public deterrence to crimes running from murder and rape to drug smuggling.

Yet if the public executions are intended to be instructional, they do not only impress adults. Khandani says that whenever an execution is carried out in the public, children are also often among the spectators.

"In Kermanshah, where I reside, I see in many places that street executions are carried out," Khandani said. "At such venues, unfortunately I see a lot of children who are there and witness the scene. In the eyes of some children, it might seem like a game."

Most of the public executions in Iran use a crane for a makeshift gallows. The prisoner -- blindfolded, handcuffed, and accompanied by an armed guard -- stands on a platform before a crowd in a stadium or square. Often several condemned men are hung in succession and, while most in the crowd look on in shock, some jeer and laugh.

What children think of such spectacles is hard to know. But many psychologists say the violence of the scene cannot leave young witnesses unmoved.

Farya Barlas, a clinical psychologist in London, says some children, such as Mehran, may interpret such events as theater. But others believe it is real and cope by accepting the brutality as normal, beginning a process of desensitization to violence that could eventually make them more violent themselves.

"Children who are immunized [to violence] by seeing such actions today -- even if they do not end up the victims of the disastrous incident that beset this particular child [who hanged himself], will still be prone to violent behavior in their adult years, as such things become ingrained in them," Barlas said. "The probability of these children reproducing violence in the years ahead of them, whether advertently or inadvertently, is much higher."

World Day Against The Death Penalty

Iran carries out the second most executions in the world, after China. Beijing refuses to release figures but is believed to execute thousands of condemned prisoners each year.

Tehran's heavy use of the death penalty runs counter to the trend worldwide, as ever more countries either abolish or cease to implement the death penalty and favor lengthy incarceration for serious crimes instead.

READ NEXT: In New Report, Amnesty International Decries Death Penalty

In 1995, 41 countries carried out executions, compared to 20 last year.

Human rights groups mark World Day Against the Death Penalty on October 10. The objective of the initiative is to achieve universal abolition of the death penalty.

The annual event was launched in 2003 by the Coalition Against the Death Penalty, an alliance of more than 120 NGOs, bar associations, local authorities, and unions.

Written by Charles Recknagel based on reporting by RFE/RL's Radio Farda correspondent Mahtab Vahidi Rad