Iran: A Crisis of the Right to Life that Cannot be Ignored
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Iran is one of the world’s top executioner states at a time when more than seven-tenths of the world’s countries (141 of 195) have abandoned capital punishment. Abdorrahman Boroumand Center has documented at least 8,200 capital sentences carried out by Iran's judiciary between 2000 and mid-2017. This is a crisis of the right to life that affects tens of thousands of families. It should not be ignored.

Why have people all over the world done away with execution? Experts in the fields of human rights law sociology, psychology, criminology, religious jurisprudence, and others argue that capital punishment is unjustifiable. It is also a cruel and inhuman punishment, which violates the most fundamental human rights. This page provides data and arguments from Iran and elsewhere to encourage the public to reflect and challenge officials to rethink their country’s policy.

Official Secrecy Impedes Open Public Discussion

Retentionist autocratic governments like Iran’s treat executions as a state secret, denying the public systematic access to legal proceedings and reliable statistics. They limit informed civil society discussions around capital punishment and obstruct free public debate among the very people criminal justice is supposed to serve and protect.

No government can legitimately invoke popular will or public support for a policy whose workings it hides. Iranian judiciary officials regularly deny details of the judicial process (i.e. the absence of attorneys during interrogation, the nature of evidence against defendants, and how the evidence was obtained.) In many cases, they even refuse to hand defendants and lawyers court documents (i.e. verdicts and indictments.) What do they seek to hide?

Pope Francis' Address to the U.S. Congress
Behnud: Juvenile Victim of Laws
The Death Penalty Is Not a Deterrent: U.S. States

Argument: High rates of crime in a society demand harsh punishment for the sake of law and order.

In the United States, laws change from state to state, giving us a handy set of data for testing this claim. American murder statistics for the period 1999-2015 show that states which did not enforce capital punishment reported consistently lower rates of homicide than those who executed. Over the 15-year period, this difference ranged from 4% to 44% – and the difference widened as the overall murder rate declined.

Dr. Sashi Tharoor's Case Against the Death Penalty in India
Reyhaneh Jabbari: Justice Denied, Dignity Under Assault
Iran's Neighbors Know Better

Iranian officials like to claim that capital punishment is an essential part of their cultural or religious heritage. They are hard-pressed to explain the fact that the great majority of Iran’s regional neighbors, Muslim-majority or otherwise, no longer practice it. Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Turkey, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Kyrgyzstan have all formally abolished the death penalty by signing binding international protocols. Tajikistan and Kazakhstan, meanwhile, have enforced moratoria for years.

An Iranian Cleric Condemns Public Executions
In a Five-Minute Trial, Iran's Judiciary Sentenced Shahram Ahmadi to Hang
The Death Penalty Jeopardizes Due Process for the Poor

A 2013 study from India’s National Law University broke down the backgrounds of the country’s more than 370 death row inmates. Their findings show that capital punishment affects the poor and marginalized most: 74.1% were deemed “economically vulnerable.” Researchers further described a “complete lack of engagement” between attorneys and clients arising from families’ inability to pay. Of 258 death row prisoners questioned about their legal representation, 77% reported that lawyers had not met with them outside of court. They described case of lawyers threatening not to appear at trial without payment, and irregular and inadequate communication which left prisoners themselves totally ignorant of legal decisions in which their lives hung in the balance.

The Death Penalty Isn't a Deterrent: Hong Kong and Singapore

In a 2009 Columbia Law School working paper, Professors Franklin E. Zimring, Jeffrey Fagan, and David T. Johnson took a look at homicide rates from 1973-2008 in abolitionist Hong Kong and retentionist Singapore, two broadly similar cities of the global south. They found no differential impact between the two jurisdictions. What’s more, they found no evidence of a deterrent effect in Singapore alone, despite an aggressive upswing to one of the world’s highest execution rates in the mid-1990s. “[The data establish that] Hong Kong is just as safe a city from criminal homicide as is Singapore” the researchers affirm.

Shreya Rastogi, National Law University Delhi Death Penalty Project Researcher
Fulgence Massawe, Tanzanian Constitutional Lawyer
The Death Penalty Doesn't Bring Closure to Victims' Families

Contrary to conventional wisdom, the process of capital sentencing and execution often fails to meet co-victims’ need for closure and justice. A 2012 study published by Marilyn Peterson Armour and Mark S. Umbreit in the Marquette Law Review compared experiences reported by those who lost loved ones to homicide in abolitionist Minnesota and retentionist Texas and found that the death penalty was “limited in its healing potential for survivors” and that “survivor well-being is associated with a perceived sense of control, not the lofty or political ideal of closure that is ill-defined and has multiple meanings.”

Rashid Williams, Lawyer for Guantanamo Bay Defendant
Magdaleno Rose Avila, Executive Director of Witness to Innocence
Religious Reasons For Opposing Execution

Though Iranian authorities often cite religious sanction for the country’s capital punishment policy, the status of the death penalty in contemporary Islam is far from settled. The insistence on absolute certainty of guilt in capital cases in Shi’a jurisprudence casts doubt on the legitimacy of death sentences issued in a judicial system rife with failures of due process and fair trial. Religious authorities have also questioned the legitimacy of any legal system implementing death sentences for huddud crimes such as adultery, sodomy, and certain cases of theft in the absence of the infallible and impeccable Imam of the Age.

Cutting Off Hands: An Islamic Necessity?
"Do They Really Cut Off Your Hand for Stealing in Iran?"
The Death Penalty May Make Survivors Feel Worse

A study by psychologists Carlsmith, Wilson, and Gilbert published in 2008 sheds light on an important emotional reality at play in capital sentencing. In an experimental game, players regularly expected to feel better after punishing others who cheated. After such punishment was meted out, they in fact felt consistently worse, especially if they did the punishing themselves: “punishment causes people to think about the offender more, and this in turn maintains their negative affect.” Iran’s qesas system frames capital murder cases as a matter of the rights of murder victims, making them personally responsible, a setup which would be expected to provoke rumination and negative feelings.

Executions Sideline Discussion of Effective Measures

Officials and opinion-makers trumpet capital punishment as an effective and necessary measure - though there’s no evidence that the death penalty deters criminals any more than other harsh sentences. By pushing a controversial, high-stakes, but ultimately futile policy, such figures may grab votes and headlines at a terrible cost to their societies. The death penalty in these cases is worse than useless: it sidelines public discussion on alternative punishments and provenly effective anti-crime measures such as poverty reduction, education, and police training, and effectively sacrifices those convicted of crimes to the ambitions of politicians who seek to give their constituencies a false sense of security and control.