Abdorrahman Boroumand Center

for Human Rights in Iran

In the past month, Iranians of all walks of life have taken to the street to express their outrage following the September 16 death in custody of Mahsa (Jina) Amini, violently arrested by the so-called “morality police” for failing to properly wear the mandatory veil (hejab). In response, forces of the Islamic Republic have fired live ammunition and killed peaceful protesters, displaying to the world’s astonishment their contempt for the most fundamental of human rights, the right to life, without which no other right can be enjoyed. The toll of this crackdown is staggering: Human Rights Activists in Iran are investigating 200 cases of presumed protester deaths with names and details, 31 of which they have directly confirmed (the toll has been especially high for minorities: of the 200, 95 pertain to Zahedan in the Baluch-majority Sistan and Baluchistan Province). [1]

A state that arbitrarily kills protesters in plain public view is a state that fears the voices of its citizens and rules through terror. It is also a state that kills even more in secret: it is no surprise then that Iran’s execution rate, long one of the world’s highest, skyrocketed from 247 in 2020 to 317 in 2021, and at least 429 in 2022 through October 7 (the pace has only quickened - since last year’s World Day, at least 521 executions have been conducted in Iran). 

On this World Day Against the Death Penalty, a punishment that goes hand in hand with torture, Abdorrahman Boroumand Center for Human Rights in Iran (ABC) expresses its concern about the increase in the number of executions in a context of systemic due process violations as well as the mortal danger facing protesters who have been arrested since mid-September 2022.

The road to the death penalty is paved with torture, rightly notes the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty:
“The types of torture and other ill-treatment experienced during the long death penalty road are varied and numerous: physical or psychological torture has been applied in many cases during questioning to force confessions to capital crimes; death row phenomenon contributes to the long-term psychological decline of a person’s health; harsh death row living conditions contribute to physical deterioration; mental anguish of anticipating execution; methods of execution that cause exceptional pain, and the suffering experienced by family members and those with a close relationship with the executed person. Discriminations based on sex, gender, poverty, age, sexual orientation, religious and ethnic minority status and others can compound cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of individuals sentenced to death.”
Individuals who have faced the death penalty in Iran have experienced all the above. Over the past four decades, ABC and other human rights groups have documented thousands of flawed prosecutions leading to the death penalty, many relying on tortured confessions as evidence:
  • “During his detention period, Mr. Ahmadi was frequently tortured. He told his cellmates that his interrogators used electric shocks, lashing, food deprivation, and threats against his family, in order to get him to confess to having links to extremist groups whose goal was to overthrow the regime. Interrogators also insulted and demeaned Mr. Ahmadi as a Sunni and attacked his religious beliefs.” - from the Omid case of Bahram Ahmadi, executed December 27, 2012. [2]
  • “After spending five months in the Ministry of Information’s secret solitary confinement, I succumbed to their wishes and did everything they asked me to, uttering the words that were dictated to me. Two months after the false confession, I was transferred to Karun Prison … . At the first trial, which was conducted on May 21, 2012, I told the truth to the judge… I emphasized to the judge that I had implicated others at the behest of the security forces and that I had been coerced to do so under mental and psychological duress and under [physical] torture.” - Hashem Sha'baninejad (Amuri), executed January 2014. [3]
  • “They would pull a plastic bag over my head and drive me to the brink of asphyxiation and death. They would severely beat me on my arms, legs and stomach with clubs and other hard objects, and would repeatedly insult me using the vilest language. They would tie me up and pour alcohol down my nose.” - Navid Afkari, executed September 12, 2020. [4]
  • “…We had gathered in Pasdaran in order to support one of our elders and our brother when the Islamic Republic Police Force started to beat us with clubs, and I had 17 stitches in my head.” - Mohammad Reza Salas Babajani, executed June 18, 2018. [5] 
The method of execution, hanging in most cases in the past two decades, is itself torture:
  • Alireza M., convicted on drug charges, survived a botched execution and was taken to a hospital ICU sometime prior to 2014. He afterward suffered symptoms of oxygen deprivation to the brain, including amnesia, and failed to recall his own hanging. [6]
The privatization of death penalty in cases of murder per Iran’s rule of “qesas,” which leaves the accused in limbo between a death sentence and forgiveness by the victim’s family, is another form of cruel treatment:
  • Behnud Shojaei, an alleged juvenile offender, was informed of his own imminent execution five times before being put to death in 2009: on three of these occasions he went to the gallows, where he witnessed 14 hangings. In a final interview, he said: “ I have spent four and a half years of my life in jail among a bunch of criminals, since I was 17. I swear to God, the punishment I have suffered is enough to last a lifetime. I pray to God that even [my] worst enemy doesn’t end up in a place like this.” [7]
  • Saleh Shariati, yet another alleged juvenile offender sentenced in a qesas case and eventually pardoned, spoke of depression and suicidal ideation in a message from death row in fall 2018: “I’m innocent. I’ve spent five years of my life in this prison… [my] life has been in shambles, I don’t even know what’s going on… I’m nothing now, I’m ruined, my spirit is broken… Every day the thought [of hurting myself] comes into my head… How much longer can a person wait?” [8]
Mahsa Amini’s recent death in detention is neither an accident nor a new phenomenon. Detainees are regularly mistreated, beaten, and tortured:
  • “He had been tortured during detention. They had drilled a hole into his ankle and broken his fingers. They gave my brother electric shocks and beat him up with a cable on numerous occasions.” - Testimony from the brother of Behruz Alkhani, executed August 26, 2015 [9]
  • “They tortured me and said ‘we’re going to kill you, we’re going to persecute your family; you must accept everything we tell you and say it in front of the camera, say that you did it; you must sign every letter we bring you.’ Fearing for my family and to stop them from increasing the torture, I agreed.” - Kamal Molaii, executed March 4, 2015 [10]
  • "The chubby man pulled my head back, and the beardless man slapped my ears a few times:  left, right, left, right. I experienced the first real thrashing of my life. ... I felt something in my back. I felt the swelling of my skin, and then ... rip.... my skin ruptured. I had a vision of my little sisters being made helpless like me. ... They bound your hands and feet. Then they hung you from a rod, like a piece of clothing, and kicked you in your stomach with their knees ...." - Reyhaneh Jabbari Malayeri, executed October 25, 2014 [11]
  • According to persons with knowledge of the case, based on the account of some of Mr. Heidari’s relatives who have witnessed his body, there were signs of beatings on his body, and there was a deep fracture measuring approximately 4 inches on the upper left hand side of his skull, at the extremity of which there was a bump that seemed to have been caused by a blow with a heavy object. ” - from the Omid case of Vahid Heidari, who died in custody after being arrested in the crackdown on countrywide protests in 2017-2018. [12]
Human rights experts concur: there is no capital punishment without torture. Death row prisoners in countries where the rule of law matters are also subjected to torture, but the human toll in Iran, where a lack of accountability for those who trample the rights of defendants and arrestees mean violations recur with sobering predictability, is outrageously high. The inevitable undue suffering which accompanies capital sentencing and execution is one of the reasons why most countries in the world have abolished it in law or in practice: at present, 137 states - an overwhelming majority of the world’s 195. [13] 

The increase in the number of executions at a time when Iran’s interlocutors are focused on reviving the nuclear deal with Iran is reminiscent of the years preceding the initial agreement, when the execution numbers rose to more than 1,050 in 2015. Iran’s leaders count on the distraction of the international community and the fact that for four decades, they have seen no serious response to their taking thousands of lives through summary, arbitrary or extrajudicial executions. It is time for the international community to send a strong message by demanding Iran institute an immediate moratorium on the death penalty and support the establishment at the United Nations of an independent mechanism to investigate gross human rights violations, including the use of deadly force against protesters, and address the Islamic Republic of Iran’s long-standing systemic impunity.

[1] HRANA, October 10, 2022 https://www.hra-news.org/periodical/a-125/

[2] https://www.iranrights.org/memorial/story/-7321/bahram-ahmadi

[3] https://www.iranrights.org/memorial/story/71725/hashem-shabaninejad-amuri

[4] A source with knowledge of the case told the Abdorrahman Boroumand Center that Mr. Afkari had several heart attacks because of the severity of the physical and psychological pressure resulting from the torture he endured. https://www.iranrights.org/memorial/story/-8506/navid-farshid-afkari-sangari 

[5] According to the Amnesty International Report Mr. Salas’ family’s request for an autopsy and examination of his body by the Medical Examiner’s Office in order to document the signs of torture was opposed [and denied] by judicial authorities. https://www.iranrights.org/memorial/story/-8267/mohammadreza-salas-babajani 

[6] Shargh Newspaper, February 4, 2014, https://www.iranrights.org/library/document/2568

[7] https://www.iranrights.org/memorial/story/-7591/behnud-shojai

[8] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G6xumR4ifGc

[9] https://www.iranrights.org/memorial/story/-8093/behruz-alkhani 

[10]  https://www.iranrights.org/memorial/story/-7624/kamal-molaii 

[11]  https://www.iranrights.org/memorial/story/-7338/reyhaneh-jabbari-malayeri 

[12] https://www.iranrights.org/memorial/story/-8106/vahid-heidari

[13] https://worldcoalition.org/campagne/20th-world-day-against-the-death-penalty/