Hundreds gather for a public execution. So far in 2013, Iran has executed at least 402 individuals, 53 of them in public.

125 People Executed Since Rouhani Took Office

(October 8, 2013) – The Iranian authorities should impose an immediate moratorium on executions in Iran given the alarming rise in the use of the death penalty in recent weeks, the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran and the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center said today.

As World Day Against the Death Penalty approaches on October 10, the Judiciary should review the sentencing guidelines that allow for the use of capital punishment, and revise them in accordance with international standards, the human rights organizations added.

In the two weeks between September 11 and September 25, Iranian officials hanged a record 50 individuals, primarily for drug-related offenses.

“While Rouhani was promoting a softer image of Iran internationally during his visit to New York two weeks ago, it was business as usual on the domestic front with scores of prisoners put to death following unfair trials,” said Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran. “Since Rouhani’s inauguration, the increasing number of prisoners being sent to the gallows is indefensible,” he added.

The increase in execution numbers comes at a time when the release of several well-known political prisoners has raised hopes for substantive human rights reform in Iran. Iranian president Hassan Rouhani’s visit to the UN General Assembly in New York and his diplomatic overtures aimed at ending tensions related to Iran’s nuclear dossier have been widely seen as a new, more conciliatory phase in relations between Iran and the international community. Yet while Rouhani was elected on promises of change and human rights reforms, there have been at least 125 executions since his inauguration on August 4, with dozens of other prisoners sentenced to death or facing imminent execution.

Iran carries out more executions per capita annually than any other country in the world. So far in 2013, Iran has executed at least 402 individuals. It also carries out many of these executions in public, with 53 such public executions in 2013.

UN experts and other governments have repeatedly voiced concern over Iran’s use of the death penalty in drug-related convictions. Under international law, the use of the death penalty is restricted to only the “most serious” crimes, and the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions has explicitly held that drug-related crimes do not meet this criterion. Yet drug offenders are routinely sentenced to death and executed in Iran. In the past month alone, 25 out of the total 55 individuals executed were convicted of drug-related offenses. United Nations experts have called on Iranian authorities to impose a moratorium on the death penalty.

There are also serious concerns about the legal rights afforded to defendants in death penalty cases. Many defendants are denied due process and do not have adequate access to legal counsel. Additionally, evidentiary standards in these trials, especially in cases deemed “security crimes” by the Iranian Judiciary, fall well below international norms.

While the executive branch does not have direct control over executions or the prison system, recent developments—including the release of a few prominent political prisoners in advance of Rouhani’s visit to the UN—suggest that Iran’s Judiciary supports the new president’s diplomatic endeavors, at least in part. Yet the accelerating pace of executions over the past month indicates that Iran’s Judiciary has not initiated any broad review of domestic policy since Rouhani’s election.

In addition to the high numbers of individuals put to death for drug-related offenses, there is an on-going concern that the death penalty continues to be used as a tool to stifle political dissent, especially against ethnic minorities, such as in the case of six Kurdish Sunni activists and four Arab-Iranian men whose death sentences were recently upheld by Iran’s Supreme Court and who currently face imminent execution.

On September 19, 2013, Mowlana Abdulhamid, the Sunni Friday prayer leader, wrote a letter to Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, calling for a halt to the execution of another 26 Sunni Kurdish-Iranian young men on death row at Karaj’s Rajaee Shahr prison.

“The rapid pace of executions over the past month shows that while talk of human rights reforms has intensified with the release of high-profile political prisoners and promises for more pardons, there is still a long way to go in pushing change on the margins of society,” said Gissou Nia, executive director of the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center. “The seeming trend for reform has yet to extend to Iran’s liberal application of the death penalty, which disproportionately affects ethnic minorities and the poor.”