Asia-Pacific, Crime & Justice, Headlines, Human Rights

RIGHTS: Activists Celebrate Iran’s Ban on Juvenile Executions

Zainab Mineeia and Jim Lobe

WASHINGTON, Oct 16 2008 (IPS) - International human rights groups have welcomed the reports out of Tehran Thursday that Iranian courts may no longer order the death penalty against juvenile offenders.

Of the five countries that still permit the execution of juveniles, Iran has been responsible for the most executions in recent years.

“I’m delighted,” Jo Becker, director of the Children’s Rights Project of New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) told IPS. “If this directive is implemented, it will be a huge step forward and will move the world very close to a real ban on the execution of juvenile offenders.”

“[We] welcome the announcement and hope that it will pave the way to a complete abolition of the death penalty in Iran,” said a statement issued late Thursday by Amnesty International in London.

The group also called on Iran’s parliament, the Majlis, to ensure that the ban, which was reportedly issued by the office of Iran’s prosecutor general, is made into law and that the Islamic Republic’s Council of Guardians endorses it.

Both Amnesty and HRW, as well as a number of other international and Iranian rights groups, have made the abolition of the execution of juvenile offenders a major priority in their international lobbying efforts.

Earlier this week, they published a statement signed by more than 300 non-governmental organisations (NGOs) from 82 countries around the world calling on the U.N. General Assembly to put pressure on the five hold-out countries, which include Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Pakistan, and Yemen, as well as Iran, to ban the practice.

Together, the five countries had executed 32 individuals who were juveniles at the time they allegedly committed the capital offence of which they were accused between January 2005 and last month. Of the total, however, Iran executed by far the most – 26.

“We, as local , national, regional and international non-governmental organisations from every part of the world, call on each U.N. member state to fully implement the absolute ban on the juvenile death penalty, as required by customary law, the Convention on the Rights of the child, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and as highlighted by the (U.N.) Secretary-General’s recent study on violence against children,” said the petition, which was organised by the Children’s Rights International Network (CRIN).

Until 2005, when its Supreme Court declared the execution of juvenile offenders unconstitutional, the United States also executed juvenile offenders. From 1976 until the Court’s ruling, 22 individuals who were younger than 18 at the time they committed their crimes were executed in U.S. states, 13 of them in Texas.

According to an interview with the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) Wednesday, the judicial deputy of the Prosecutor General said courts have been ordered to commute death sentences of juvenile offenders to prison terms.

“According to this directive, punishments for offenders under the age of 18 [in capital offence cases], will be reduced to life in prison in the first stage and in the second stage [of parole] will be reduced to 15 years,” the deputy, Hussein Zebhi, stated, according to a translation provided by the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran.

“In addition, in cases of good behaviour and signs of rehabilitation, juvenile offenders may qualify for conditional release under Islamic compassions guidelines,” he told IRNA, the state news agency.

The Campaign’s coordinator, Hadi Ghaemi, explained that Iranian officials had previously made a distinction between execution for capital offences and executions for under the law of “qisas” (“an eye for an eye”), claiming qisas sentences cannot be reduced by judges.

But while Zebhi did not explicitly address that issue, he told IRNA that “offenders under the age of 18, no matter what their offence is, will not be subject to executions but will receive other punishments according to the law.” Ghaemi called on the Iranian Judiciary to publicly release the entire text of the directive and clearly state that there will be no exceptions for cases of qisas.

“This decision is long overdue given that Iran leads the world in executing juvenile offenders, and it is a significant step towards honouring international law,” Ghaemi said, noting that Iran has ratified the relevant treaties, including the Convention on the Rights of the child and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which bans the death penalty for offenders under the age of 18.

“We are extremely for the families of nearly 130 juveniles on death row and hope that this directive will put an immediate end to any more executions of juvenile offenders,” he said.

Like Amnesty, however, Ghaemi stressed that the directive still fell short of a legally binding commitment and called for it to be approved into law by the parliament. “The next and urgently needed step is for the parliament to act on this issue and abolish the death penalty for children through legislation,” he said.

One of those apparently spared by the new directive may be Mohammed Feda’i, who allegedly killed another boy in a fight when he was 17. Earlier this summer, he was given a stay of execution to allow his family more time to reach an agreement over financial compensation with the victim’s family, according to Amnesty, which noted that Iran’s Supreme Court had upheld the sentence despite evidence that he had received inadequate representation at his trial.

The directive comes too late for Seeyed Reza Hejazi who was executed Aug. 19 for his role in a murder committed in 2003, when he was 15. Hejazi, who admitted that he stabbed an assailant while trying to break up a fight involving several others, insisted repeatedly that he did not intend to kill him.

Iran executed eight juvenile offenders last year and another six so far in 2008. According to a HRW report released last month, judges in Iran have had the power to impose the death penalty in capital cases if the defendant has attained “majority”, which is defined in Iranian law “as nine years for girls and 15 years for boys”.

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