Lex Talionis: The Contested Revival of an Archaic Law
April 20, 2017
“We are not ashamed of… [any] Islamic rule and dictate; ... No one, therefore, has the right to tell the judge not to invoke certain dictates because they might offend the United Nations.”
- Mohammad Javad Larijani,
Head of Iranian judiciary’s Human Rights Council
The 1979 revolution impacted Iranians’ lives in many major ways. One of the lasting changes brought about by Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic, and his supporters was in the area of law. The inclusion of Shari’a law and the concept of “an eye for an eye” in the legal system was strongly contested, but critics were silenced, sometimes violently. Since then, thousands have been sentenced to death for murder, whether premeditated or a crime of passion, intentional or accidental. The state has imposed the burden of deciding such convicts’ fates – whether they walk free or die, since imprisonment is not an option - on the families of murder victims. Today, Islamic Republic authorities continue to justify the use of qesas or lex talionis as an obligation for Muslims. The arguments of the critics, including the 110 legal experts who wrote an open letter to protest the introduction of the Retribution Bill in the parliament, are nonetheless still valid. The concerns raised 36 years ago still demand an answer: can Lex Talionis, which has existed since before Islam, across different cultures and religions, be considered divine and immutable?
The study is meant to trigger reflection about the applicability of the retribution law in today’s world. It further questions Iranian officials’ choice to implement to the letter, at the cost of great suffering, a legal concept originally meant to preserve life and prevent excessive punishment. ABF further encourages readers to think about the impact of its implementation on both society at large and on relatives of murdered victims, who become the state’s accomplices in killing.