Iran Putting Its Children on Death Row

Niusha Boghrati correspondent
April 15, 2008

“I am a murderer!” The young voice trembled on the other side of the telephone line. “I was 15 when I committed the murder. I regret what I did. It was an accident. Please save me! I want to live. I want to be free. I am living the last days of my life. Any day now they may take me to the noose. I want to survive. Is there anybody there who can save me?”

The short conversation fades into the distant tumult of Adel Abad Prison in Shiraz, a city in southwest-central Iran, where Behnam Zare’ has been awaiting execution for three years.

In the spring of 2005, Behnam was a freshman in high school when a scuffle over pet pigeons broke out between him and his friend Mehrdad. Minutes later, Behnam had become his buddy’s murderer. He says he still has no recollection of how it really happened.

Behnam, still a minor at the time he was arrested, landed in prison. Not long after the judicial process began he was convicted of murder in the primary court and sentenced to death.

“We tried hard to reverse the death sentence during the past three years. But all the efforts have so far been in vain,” said defense lawyer Mohammad Mostafaei, who advocates Behnam’s case. “In spite of every effort we made, the verdict has been approved both by the High Court of the Islamic Republic, and the head of Iran’s judiciary.”

According to Mostafaei, among the 18 cases of death row child offenders that he currently advocates, Behnam’s is in the most critical condition. He is now tiptoeing along the fragile line between a young life and an early death.

“All the legal steps have been taken, and the execution order has been sent to Adel Abad Prison,” said the Tehran-based lawyer. “The death sentence by hanging can be carried out any minute now.”

Islamic Code vs. International Obligations

Iran is among the very few countries in which children under the age of 18 can be sentenced to death. Although a signatory to the United Nations’ International Convention on the Rights of the Child and International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which prohibit the ill-treatment and execution of children or juvenile offenders under any circumstance, the Islamic Republic still preserves for itself the right of over-ruling the treaties.

For murder (among other crimes such as rape, blasphemy, and adultery), Iran’s judiciary follows the Islamic Penal Code, which recognizes 15 Islamic lunar years for males and 9 for females as the age of mental maturity and legal responsibility. Therefore, capital punishment can legally be applied to children above those ages. The judicial system locks away the offender until his or her 18th birthday, and then carries out the punishment.

In cases of murder, the process of retribution in-kind (qesas-e nafs) can only be stopped by a pardon of the first degree from the relatives of the victim or by direct order of the head of the judiciary.

Iran is the world’s leading executioner of juvenile offenders. The country executed at least six juvenile offenders in 2007 and has the dubious distinction of having executed the only juvenile offender this year anywhere in the world.

This Year’s Sole Victim

Javad Shojai was 16 when he took the life of his friend Rostam eight years ago in a scuffle in Isfahan, a city in central Iran. Javad said he had no intention of doing so—a claim that was not embraced by the court.

Months and years passed in prison until that early dawn of a cold winter day when Javad’s eight years of bitter anticipation eventually came to an end with the signature of the chief of the judiciary, Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi. Javad was hanged in the prison’s yard on Feb. 26.

Javad’s case remains this year’s only recorded case of an execution of a juvenile offender in the world.

“He still had hope. He used to say he was sure they would pardon him at the last moment, even if they took him to the hangman noose,” said Najmeh Shojaee, Javad’s elder sister, on the day he was executed. “We waited for eight years for him to come home, wishing he would be released. And now after eight years … I can’t believe they have killed my brother. Today [Feb. 26] we waited for nine hours outside the prison doors, not knowing what is going on. They even did not let us say goodbye on the last day.”

In the last days of Javad’s short life, the campaigns to save him intensified. Amnesty International and the Human Rights Council of the United Nations repeatedly appealed to Iranian officials to halt Javad’s execution; but according to Amnesty International’s Iran researcher, Drewery Dyke, the efforts were useless.

“We expressed our concerns to the Iranian government, through Geneva and New York. We demanded them to meet their international obligations, but unfortunately they would not listen to us,” Dyke said.

Civil Society’s Struggles

Against all odds, hundreds of Iranian lawyers, nongovernmental organizations, journalists, and activists are struggling with the inflexible codes that rule Iran’s judiciary—renowned Iranian lawyer and 2003 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi being one of the most prominent. Ebadi, who has founded the Committee to Defend the Right of Children in Iran, largely owes her honorable prize to her activities in the field of children’s rights.

“It is a shame that our country, with all its glorious values, sets the world record in minor execution instead of science, wisdom, and culture, etc.” Ebadi said. “But Iran’s civil society will not let that happen. There is no way forward other than accepting the responsibilities that the international treaties bear for us.”

There have been a few cases in which campaigns by Iranian activists have had positive results.

In the most recent example, in mid-December 2007, the head of the judiciary temporarily suspended the execution of Ali Mahin Torabi, who had been sentenced to death for a murder he committed when he was 16. The case has been sent for further review due to “inconsistencies” in the file, according to Giti Poorfazel, one of Ali’s advocates.

“At the beginning of December it was feared that his case had been sent to the Office for the Implementation of Sentences and that his execution was imminent,” said Tehran-based activist and lawyer Poorfazel. “We hope Ali will be pardoned; but this is not the point! The point is that we should have a secure system for children. We must not have a legal status in which we will be forced to campaign every now and then for the vivid rights of minors.”

According to Amnesty International, there are currently at least 79 Iranian children on death row awaiting their 18th birthday, at which time they will receive a most sinister present from the state.