For several years now the right to life has been under heavy assault in the Islamic Republic of Iran. The country has followed a familiar but troubling pattern regarding the use of the death penalty. It has consistently ranked second in the world in the number of executions carried out (behind China), and first in executions per capita. More recently, the upward trend in executions that began in 2010-11 has reached alarming levels not seen in more than two decades. In 2015, alone, human rights organisations tracking the number of executions in Iran documented at least 966 executions, with over 65 percent of these executions related to non-violent drug crimes. In that same year, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Iran accounted for around 90 percent of all executions in the world (excluding China), helping reverse a global trend that had seen a constant reduction of death penalty cases worldwide during the past 25 years.
United Nations rights bodies have repeatedly called on authorities in Iran to curb their use of the death penalty, and urged officials to institute a moratorium on the death penalty. The latest such appeal came from UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, in April 2016, when he called on Iranian authorities to institute a moratorium on the use of the death penalty altogether. Commissioner Zeid’s request, like many before him, centered on two particularly egregious aspects of the death penalty in Iran: 1) the execution of juvenile offenders, or individuals under 18 years of age when they committed an offense; and 2) use of the death penalty for crimes not considered “most serious.” Both types of executions are strictly prohibited under international law.
Iran’s continuing and blatant disregard for the right to life of juvenile and non-violent drug offenders, combined with the sharp rise in the number of executions in recent years, makes it, in many ways, an international outlier when it comes to use of the death penalty. Behind the harrowing numbers are the countless faces and stories of the “other” victims, only a portion of which have been documented by human rights groups.
The number of executions in Iran began to rise noticeably around 2010-11 during the second term of former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. This rise coincided with significant changes to the country’s Anti-Narcotics Law which expanded the list of drug-related crimes that carried the death penalty to include non-violent offenses, and severely limited the right of appeal for certain death sentences. The numbers have been equally troubling for juvenile offenders on death row, with at least 12 reportedly hanged in 2014-15—the highest such number at any time during the past five years. Today, Iran is the number one executor of juvenile offenders despite recent amendments made to its penal code to address this issue, and remains one of only a handful of countries that still carries out such executions.
Ahmed Shaheed & Faraz Sanei, Outlier: Iran and its Use of the Death Penalty, in Death Penalty and the Victims 181 (Ivan Simonovic ed., 2016.)