A senior judicial official in Iran has said that the judicial execution of juvenile offenders convicted of murder will continue in the country. Hossein Zabhi, the Assistant Attorney General for Judicial Affairs, made the statement on Saturday, clarifying a misleading statement given on Thursday that was welcomed both in Iran and internationally.
The statement quashes the hopes of at least 130 families whose loved ones face execution for crimes committed under the age of 18 and indicates to the scores of human rights defenders campaigning on this issue that their voices were, and will continue to be, ignored.
In Saturday’s statement, Hossein Zabhi, said that qesas, or retribution "is not up to the government, rather it is up to the private plaintiff." Qesas is the term used by the Iranian authorities to mean judicial execution for the crime of murder, a judicial process viewed by Iran’s government as a matter between two private parties.
Amnesty International has said that the organisation deplores the re-affirmation and is concerned that the 16 October statement was intended to mislead Iranian and international public opinion by stating that Iran would no longer execute anyone below the age of 18, irrespective of the crime allegedly committed. A spokesperson for the organization called on the Supreme Leader to intervene in this urgent matter.
"He has the power to rule on this issue and to stop juvenile offenders being put to death by the state once and for all, including those sentenced to qesas for murder," said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Deputy Director of the Middle East and North Africa Programme. "Such a step would bring Iran in line with its international obligations and bring an end to such misleading word games which have dramatic implications."
Hossein Zabhi stated on Thursday that, under the terms of a directive issued by the judiciary to all jurisdictions in Iran, the state would no longer execute juveniles for any crime committed under the age if 18. The statement appeared to mark a break with past practice, although such directives do not have the force of law.
A 2002 directive by the Head of the Judiciary to end stonings has never been fully implemented as stoning sentences have continued to be passed. A man was stoned to death in July 2007.
In the Iranian legal system, there is a distinction between cases where the penalty is "execution" (hokm-e ‘edam) and qesas, although people sentenced to qesas are often reported in the media to have been sentenced to death.
In Iranian law, murder is treated as a private dispute between two civil parties – the state’s role is to facilitate the resolution of the dispute through the judicial process. In this sense, the death penalty, as in hokm-e ‘edam, is regarded as being imposed by the state, whereas qesas is imposed by the family of the victim. As a result, sentences of qesas are not open to pardon or amnesty by the Supreme Leader.
"Under international law, Iran remains fully responsible for respecting and protecting the rights of those under its jurisdiction, irrespective of the role private parties may play in the administration of justice," said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui. "In a case of qesas, Iran must respect the rights of any child offender by ensuring that the process it facilitates does not allow for the offender’s execution and protects the child offender from any acts by private parties that would lead to an execution."
Iran has been known to carry out the death penalty on juveniles under the age 18, as well as on juvenile offenders who are over the age of 18 at the time of execution. According to information available to Amnesty International, Iran has at 130 juvenile offenders on death row.
The organisation fears the true number could be higher. Since 1990, Iran has executed at least 37 juvenile offenders, eight of them in 2007 and at least six to date in 2008. No other country is known to have executed a juvenile offender in 2008.