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Death Penalty According to Iranian Law

3 May 21
Death Penalty According to Iranian Law

Iran Human Rights (IHR); May 3, 2021: Chapter III of the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran contains provisions related to the rights of the people. In this Chapter, Article 22 states: “The dignity, life, property, rights, domicile, and occupations of people may not be violated, unless sanctioned by law.

However, the number of crimes punishable by death in Iran is among the highest in the world.

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Charges such as “adultery, incest, rape, sodomy, insulting the Prophet Mohammad and other great Prophets, possessing or selling illicit drugs, theft and alcohol consumption for the fourth time, premeditated murder, moharebeh (waging war against God), efsad-fil-arz (corruption on earth), baghy (armed rebellion), fraud and human trafficking” are capital offences.[1]

Many of the charges punishable by death cannot be considered as “most serious crimes” and do not meet the ICCPR standards.[2] Murder, drug possession and trafficking, rape/sexual assault, moharebeh and efsad-fil-arz and baghy are the most common charges resulting to the death penalty in Iran.

Most of the charges punishable by death are described in the Islamic Penal Code (IPC). Drug-related offences are described in the Anti-Narcotics Law and its amendments.


1. Islamic Penal Code & offences punishable by death


In April 2013, the Iranian Parliament finally passed the new Islamic Penal Code (IPC). On 1 May 2013, the IPC was ratified by the Guardian Council – and was communicated to the Government for enforcement on 29 May 2013.

The new IPC has retained the death penalty in almost all the instances that were already punishable by death under the previous one. Moreover, it appears that its scope has been expanded in some cases. As in the last IPC, the new version explicitly states (Article 220) that Article 167 of the Constitution can be invoked by the judge to pronounce hudud punishments that the law has not addressed: “The judge is bound to endeavor to judge each case on the basis of the codified law”. In case of the absence of such law, he has to deliver his judgment on the basis of authoritative Islamic sources and authentic fatwa that can carry the mandatory death penalty. The judge, on the pretext of the silence or deficiency of law in the matter, or its brevity or contradictory nature, cannot refrain from admitting and examining cases and delivering his judgment.

In February 2019, the UN Secretary-General urged the Iranian Government “To abolish the mandatory death penalty”.[3]

According to the IPC, the following offences are punishable by death penalty:


a) Sexual offences


Incest and fornication

According to Article 224 of the IPC: “A death sentence shall be imposed on the male party in cases of incest, fornication with their stepmother, fornication of a non-Muslim man with a Muslim woman and fornication by force or reluctance. The punishment for the female party shall be decided by other provisions concerning fornication.”



Adultery between married parties is punishable by stoning (see below for more details).


Same sex relations

In lavat (penetrative male homosexual sex) cases, a death sentence shall be imposed on the “active party” only if he is married or has forced the sexual act, but the “passive party” shall receive the death penalty regardless of marital status. A non-Muslim “active party” in a sexual act with a Muslim party shall also receive the death sentence (Article 234 of the IPC). The non-Muslim “active party” in same-sex relations not involving penetration shall also be sentenced to death.

Lesbianism shall be punished on the fourth occasion if “offenders” are sentenced and receive the lashing punishment on the first three occasions. This has not been specifically stated in the law, but can be inferred from the provisions of Article 136 of the IPC on Repeat Offenders (see below).

In June 2019, when asked by a journalist “Why are homosexuals executed in Iran because of their sexual orientation?”, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif responded: “Our society has moral principles. And we live according to these principles. These are moral principles concerning the behavior of people in general. And that means that the law is respected, and the law is obeyed.[4] According to some human rights activists, many people have been executed for homosexuality since the 1979 Islamic revolution.


b) Moharebeh

Article 279 of the IPC defines moharebeh (a person who wages war against God) as someone who takes up arms in specific cases. This includes bandits, robbers and smugglers who take up arms (Article 281 of the IPC).

Article 282 of the IPC sanctions the death penalty in cases of moharebeh. However, power is granted to judges to impose the alternative punishments of crucifixion, amputation of the right hand and left foot or internal exile away from the defendant’s hometown.

Under the previous IPC, which was in force until 2013, the charge of moharebeh was frequently used against political dissidents and people with connections to opposition groups abroad, even if they were non-violent. The new Penal Code has provided for their punishment under the vague charges of efsad-fil-arz and baghy.


c) Efsad-fil-arz and baghy

The new IPC has introduced a new concept of baghy (armed rebellion) that did not exist in the previous Code. This chapter has also expanded the scope of the death penalty for all those who are convicted of efsad-fil-arz (corruption on Earth).

Article 286 of the IPC defines efsad-fil-arz as the crime committed by a person “On an extensive level against the physical integrity of others, the domestic or external security, spreads lies, disrupts the national economic system, undertakes arson and destruction, disseminates poisonous, microbiological and dangerous substances, establishes corruption and prostitution centres or assists in establishing them.”

However, this article does not provide concrete definitions for the term “crime” and the scope of “extensive”, giving judges more power to interpret the law at their own discretion.

Article 287 of the IPC defines baghy as members of any group that stage armed rebellion against the Islamic Republic of Iran and stipulates that they shall be sentenced to death.


d) Murder and qisas

Qisas refers to retribution in kind. Qisas death sentence has been retained for murder in the new IPC. As in the previous IPC, it exempts the following situations or people from qisas:

- Father and paternal grandfather of the victim (Article 301),

- A man who kills his wife and her lover in the act of adultery (Article 302),

- Muslims, followers of recognised religions, and “protected persons” who kill followers of unrecognised religions or “non-protected persons” (Article 310),

- Killing a person who has committed a hadd offence punishable by death (Article 302),

- Killing a rapist (Article 302).


The law indirectly encourages arbitrary killings by private individuals. Experts believe, for instance, that Articles 301 and 302 might be contributing to the increased number of “honour killings” in Iran.[5] The law also discriminates against followers of “unrecognised” religions. Article 301 says: “Qisas shall be established […] if the victim is sane and has the same religion as the culprit. Note: If the victim is Muslim, the non-Muslim status of the culprit shall not prevent qisas.” This includes in particular members of the Baha'i faith, which is not recognised as a religion according to Iranian law. If a Baha’i follower is murdered, the family does not receive blood money (diya), and the offender is exempted from qisas.[6] In 2013, there were two reported Baha’is murder cases. On 23 April, Saeedollah Aqdasi was murdered in his house in Miandoab (Northwestern Iran)[7] and Ataollah Rezvani was shot in Bandar Abbas (Southern Iran) on 24 August;[8] none of these cases have been properly investigated.[9]


 e) Other religious “offences”

Article 262 stipulates the death sentence for cursing the Prophet of Islam or any of the other great prophets, and for accusing the infallible imams and the Prophet Mohammad’s daughter, Fatima Zahra, of sodomy or fornication. Apostasy, sorcery, witchcraft and other such issues have not been explicitly mentioned in the new IPC, although apostasy has been specifically referred to in the Penal Code (Article 26). Under Sharia law, the punishment for apostasy is death, which a judge can impose by invoking Article 167 of the Constitution.


f) Repeat offenders

Article 136 stipulates that repeat offenders who commit an offence punishable by hadd, and who are punished for each offence, shall be sentenced to death on the fourth occasion. This article has failed to specify the hudud offences and only mentions the death sentence for fourth-occasion theft in Article 278. Nevertheless, Articles 220-288 have defined hudud offences as: fornication and adultery, sodomy, lesbianism, pimping, cursing the prophets, theft, drinking alcohol, qadf (false accusation of sodomy or fornication), moharebeh, efsad-fil-arz and baghy.


g) Stoning

The IPC has retained the punishment of stoning for those charged with adultery (Article 225). Nevertheless, the courts have been provided with the alternative to impose the death sentence upon the approval from the Head of Judiciary “If it is not possible to perform stoning”.


h) Juvenile offenders & the death penalty

The new IPC retains the death penalty for juvenile offenders. Although Articles 89-95 suggest corrective measures and alternative punishments for children and juveniles, Article 91 is very clear that the offences punishable by hudud or qisas are exceptions to this rule. It is important to note that almost all juvenile offenders executed in the past 7 years were sentenced to death based on qisas and hudud laws.

Article 91 states: “For offences punishable by hadd or qisas, mature persons younger than 18 shall be sentenced to the punishments stipulated in this chapter (Articles 89-95) if they do not understand the nature of the offence committed or its prohibition or if there are doubts about their maturity or development of their reasoning.”

The article leaves to the discretion of the judge to decide whether a juvenile offender understood the nature of the offence, whether they were mature at the time of committing the offence and whether they should be sentence to death. The Note to Article 91 authorises but does not require the court to seek the opinion of the Forensic Medical Department or to use any other means to reach a verdict.

Moreover, while Article 146 provides that immature persons do not have criminal responsibility, Article 147 repeats the provisions of the previous law and the Civil Code regarding maturity and the age of criminal responsibility. Girls are considered mature at the age of 9 lunar years and boys at the age of 15 lunar years. Therefore, a girl older than 8.7 years and a boy older than 14.6 years can be sentenced to death.

In the framework of the UPR, Iranian authorities wrote in their reply to the recommendations: “Conforming to the recent amendments made in the laws of Iran, the maximum punishment for children shall not exceed five years of detention in correctional facilities. The deprivation of life as a punishment shall be proposed but not enforced in case the culprit with the age of criminal responsibility has not perceived the nature of the crime and therefore lacks mental maturity and perfection, based on the expert assessment and judgement of the competent court.[10]

The juvenile offenders executed in 2020 were kept in prison or correctional facilities until they reached the age of 18 before being executed.[11]


2. The Anti-Narcotics Law

Iran’s Anti-Narcotics Law was drafted in 1988 and previously amended in 1997 and 2011. Both amendments were aimed at counteracting Iran’s growing drugs problem by expanding the scope of the law and introducing harsher sentences. The 2011 amendments introduced the death penalty for the possession of as little as 30 grams of heroin and included new categories of drugs. Altogether, the Anti-Narcotics Law, including the 1997 and 2011 amendments, imposed the death penalty for 17 drug-related offences,[12] including: a fourth conviction for drug-related offences in several instances; planting opium poppies, coca plants or cannabis seeds with the intent to produce drugs; smuggling more than 5 kilograms of opium or cannabis into Iran; buying, possessing, carrying or hiding more than 5 kilograms of opium and the other aforementioned drugs (punishable upon a third conviction); smuggling into Iran, dealing, producing, distributing and exporting more than 30 grams of heroin, morphine, cocaine or their derivatives.

The new amendment, which was enforced on 14 November 2017, includes a mechanism to limit the use of the death penalty and reduce the sentences of those facing death or life imprisonment. The new amendment increases the minimum amounts of illegal drugs that would subject convicted producers and distributors to a death sentence, raising the level of synthetic substances, such as heroin, cocaine, and amphetamines, from 30 grams to 2 kilograms and that of natural substances, such as opium and marijuana, from 5 kilograms to 50 kilograms (Amendment, Article 45(d).) The punishment for those already sentenced to death or life in prison for drug-related offences should be commuted to up to 30 years in prison and a fine.[13] Death sentences should be restricted to those convicted of carrying (not only using) weapons, acting as the ringleader, providing financial support, or using minors below the age of 18 or the mentally ill in a drug crime, and to those previously sentenced to death, life imprisonment, or imprisonment for more than 15 years for related crimes.[14] [15]

A complete analysis of the new amendments to the Anti-Narcotics Law is available in the 2017 Annual Report on the Death Penalty.[16] The implementation of the 2017 amendment has led to a significant decrease in the total number of executions. However, the number of executions for drug-related charges remains high.



[1] United Nations, Situation of Human Rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran: Report of the Secretary-General, U.N. Doc. A/68/377, 10 Sept. 2013, § 14. See also IHR and ECPM, Annual Report on the Death Penalty in Iran - 2013, pp.15-18.

[2] International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Article 6.

[3] United Nations, Situation of Human Rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran: Report of the Secretary-General, Human Rights Council, 40th session, 8 February 2019 (GE.19-01989(E)).

[4] https://www.dw.com/en/iran-defends-execution-of-gay-people/a-49144899

[5] Kazeminia Samaneh, Bagheri Mostafa, “The continuation of the legal provisions prescribing honour killings in the new IPC ”, 2015 https://civilica.com/doc/388532/ 

[6] https://iranhr.net/en/articles/2918/

[7] HRANA: Lack of investigation in murder case of a Bahai citizen

[8] http://www.bbc.co.uk/persian/iran/2013/08/130819_u04_bahai_rezvani_killing.shtml

[9] http://www.radiozamaneh.com/125291

[10] https://undocs.org/en/A/HRC/43/12/Add.1

[11] See the “Juvenile Offenders” section of this report.

[12] https://www1.essex.ac.uk/hri/documents/research-paper-iran-death-penalty-drug-crimes.pdf

[13] Id. art. 45 ¶ 1.

[14] Id. art. 45(a)-(c).

[15] http://www.loc.gov/law/foreign-news/article/iran-drug-law-amended-to-restrict-use-of-capital-punishment/

[16] IHR and ECPM, Annual Report on the Death Penalty - 2017, pp. 43-44; https://iranhr.net/media/files/Rapport_iran_2018-gb-090318-MD2.pdf