x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Pressure to abolish Iran's 'grotesque punishment'

Amnesty International listed Iran as the world's second most prolific executioner last year.

A human rights group headed by Shirin Ebadi, Iran's Nobel peace laureate, above, is critical of the judicial system.
A human rights group headed by Shirin Ebadi, Iran's Nobel peace laureate, above, is critical of the judicial system.

Kobra Najar, an Iranian mother of four, has spent more than a decade on death row after being convicted of adultery and complicity in the murder of her husband, who is alleged to have been violent and addicted to heroin. He is said to have forced her into prostitution and she encouraged his murder by another man. Her husband's murderer was sentenced to death but pardoned by his victim's family after paying them "blood money". Najar, however, faces death by stoning at any time, lawyers defending her said.

If her sentence is carried out, she will be ritually washed, wrapped in a white shroud and carried on a stretcher with her hands tied behind her back to an open space in the prison at dawn. She will then be buried up to the armpits and stoned to death. Najar, 43, is among eight women and one man facing the same punishment for adultery. Their terrifying plight is being publicised by an Iranian rights group that is seeking pardons for the nine and international support to persuade Tehran to abolish stoning.

The women range in age from 27 to 43. All are said to have either suffered violence, been forced into marriage or had divorce applications rejected. The man, a 50-year-old music teacher, was convicted of illegal sex with a student. The verdicts "can be carried out at any moment", said Shadi Sadr of the Volunteer Lawyers' Network, which represents the female convicts. Amnesty International has urged Iran to abolish "this grotesque punishment".

The human rights organisation listed Iran as the world's second most prolific executioner last year, with at least 317 people put to death, trailing only China, a far more populous country, which carried out 470 death sentences. There have been 149 executions in Iran this year, although "the true figure could be much higher", Amnesty International said. Hanging is the usual form of capital punishment in Iran: stonings are very rare. A moratorium on the practice was issued by Ayatollah Mahmoud Shahroudi, the head of the judiciary, in 2002. At the time, the European Union made that measure and other human rights reforms a condition for opening landmark negotiations with Iran.

Despite the moratorium, a man convicted of adultery was stoned to death last year, provoking international outrage. It was the first stoning confirmed by Iran's judiciary in five years, although rights activists said a man and woman were also stoned to death in 2006. The Volunteer Lawyers' Network has had some success, saving five women and a man from stoning in the past two years. But the group wants stoning as a penalty to be removed from the statute books altogether. "There are no guarantees that the punishments [against the nine] will be halted or commuted," said Shadi Sadr, who is also a leading activist in the Stop Stoning Forever campaign established by Iranian women two years ago.

The nine convicts facing death by stoning were mostly from illiterate and underprivileged backgrounds who were condemned to death in the absence of a good defence, the Volunteer Lawyers' Network said. The Iranian authorities are coming under growing domestic and international pressure on a number of human rights issues. Prominent among them is the execution of people for crimes committed when they were minors. Iran is party to two international treaties that outlaw the execution of those who were younger than 18 at the time of their offence.

Iran has attempted to circumvent such commitments by keeping minors on death row until they reach 18. But last month a 17-year-old, Mohammad Hassandzadeh, was hanged for murder, making him the second juvenile to be executed in Iran this year. A human rights group headed by Iran's Nobel peace laureate Shirin Ebadi said last weekend: "At least 74 minors who committed capital crimes before reaching the age of 18 are awaiting the gallows."

Ms Ebadi's group, the Defenders of Human Rights Centre, also complained about hundreds of cases of trials and punitive verdicts against student activists, teachers, labourers and women. Tehran has stepped up arrests of rights advocates and unionists over the past year. Several women activists seeking equal rights for women in inheritance, divorce and child custody have been jailed. "Imprisonment, flogging and torment are still used against the followers of a movement seeking change for equality through calm and logical protest," Ms Ebadi's group said.

Also on the rise again are public executions, which had been rare since Ayatollah Shahroudi ordered an end to them in January, unless they had his special approval. But 10 people have been executed publicly this month alone. The condemned are usually executed behind prison walls. Stoning as a method of execution is calculated to increase the victim's suffering. Under Iranian law, the stones must be neither too big nor too small, so that death is neither mercifully quick nor endlessly prolonged. Some stoning victims reportedly have taken 20 minutes to die.

Women suffer disproportionately from such punishment, according to human rights groups. "One reason is that they are not treated equally before the law and courts, in clear violation of international fair trial standards," according to Amnesty International. Also, men stoned to death are buried to the waist, while women are buried deeper, to stop the stones from hitting their breasts. This apparent regard for a woman's modesty actually has a negative effect for women. If a prisoner manages to pull free during a stoning, he or she can be acquitted or jailed but is not executed. It is easier for a man to drag himself free because he is not buried as deeply.

Capital offences in Iran include murder, rape, armed robbery, apostasy, blasphemy, serious drug trafficking, repeated sodomy, treason and espionage. Human rights groups accuse Iran of resorting excessively to the death penalty, but Tehran counters that it is an effective deterrent used only after a thorough judicial process. Tehran also accuses the West of hypocrisy, citing for example what it says are abuses of detainees held by the United States in Guantanamo Bay.

Ahmad Jannati, a powerful hardline ayatollah, last year defended the death penalty, describing a spate of executions at the time as "one of the best ? political and cultural actions that has ever taken place". @Email:mtheodoulou@thenational.ae