Iran Human Rights (IHRNGO); 13 April 2023: In her foreword to the 2022 Annual Report on the Death Penalty, prominent human rights defender, Atena Daemi writes: “The public demands the complete abolition of the death penalty. We, the activists of the right to life, will continue this struggle until that has been achieved.”
The Islamic Republic has been using the death penalty as a tool to keep power since its inception. Thousands of people were executed by hanging or a firing squad for opposing the government in the dark years of 1980s. This is while many of them hadn’t even been sentenced to death by the Islamic Republic’s own unfair courts.
In the 44 years of the Islamic Republic’s rule, thousands of dissidents, most after being severely physically and mentally tortured to accept baseless accusations against them, being forced to confess on camera and after being tried in minutes, were sentenced to death and executed. Many of them were deprived of the right to have a lawyer of their choice.
But this doesn’t only apply to political or security charges. Executing death row prisoners for ordinary crimes including murder and drug charges, has always been the only way for the authorities to deal with these social issues. The root causes of these crimes have never been examined or remedied, the government uses deterrence as the justification for the death penalty. Yet every year, the number of murders (especially honour killings) as well as drug-related offences, are rising, just as opposition and protests against the government have also become more widespread due to inhumane and ineffective state policies.
The Islamic Republic’s role in the current social problems has been written about extensively. Many of the murders and crimes being committed are due to discriminatory and inhumane laws. For example, from my own observations in prison, most of the murders were committed because women don’t have the right to divorce and were child brides, in both cases the legislatures are to blame. Or in drug-related cases, while the role of authorities in smuggling drugs into the country is evident, it is the petty sellers who are arrested and executed. In both examples, the important point to note is that the punishment isn’t a deterrent. In prison, I witnessed that drug prisoners, the majority of whom were from marginalised and impoverished communities, repeated their offences knowing that the punishment for being in possession in Iran is death, and despite having previously been arrested and imprisoned on the same charges, some had even been on death row and released through pardons.
A significant number of prisoners are there for murder and many are women with stoning sentences, which were changed to execution by hanging years ago. The important point to note is that most of them were in prison for killing their husbands, which with a little research, one could find out the causes: not having the right to divorce, child marriages and a patriarchal society being key amongst them.
Years ago, I wrote an article from Evin Prison about the impact of the action and words of government officials in normalising violence and the death penalty in Iran. I monitored a newspaper for a month (month of Moharam) and found a significant amount of bullying language by government officials, threats to citizens inside the country and other countries, excessive violent language, behaviour and official policies. Furthermore, the number of times the words execution and qisas were used in a reformist newspaper left no other conclusion for me but that the government was trying to normalise both violence and the death penalty.
In 2017, following domestic and international efforts, the Islamic Republic conditionally removed the death penalty for certain drug offences. However, we saw in prison that while removing the death penalty for these offences, drug distribution began on a large scale around the country which according to many prisoners, was happening in an organised manner and at the same time, mass arrests were being made. By removing the death penalty and distributing drugs on a large scale, the Islamic Republic sought to show the public and international community that the death penalty had been a deterrent for drug offences.
Opposing the death penalty not only supports the most basic right, the right to life, but also supports and insists on the rights of their families and society. The death penalty has many adverse psychological effects on families and society.
For 44 years, civil activists consistently expressed their opposition against the inhumane death sentences in different ways, tried to identify the societal causes and factors and fought for years to amend discriminatory laws that lead to criminal offences and social issues. Families of the victims of the death penalty have also tried to abolish the death penalty by seeking justice and giving accounts of its impact on families. But most of these activists and families have either been arrested and imprisoned or forced into exile.
But the fight to abolish the death penalty continues and fortunately, a large part of society has realised the inhumanity and the non-deterrence of this punishment. The government’s efforts to present the death penalty as religiously and legally legitimate have failed, the public want the complete abolition of the death penalty.
For us activists of the right to life, this struggle will continue until the complete abolition of the death penalty.