Hundreds on death row in Mashad

(25 October 2010)  Iran’s Judiciary should immediately institute a moratorium on all executions at Vakilabad Prison in Mashad and provide a transparent response to allegations of excessive numbers of executions at the facility, said the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran today.

The Campaign continues to receive credible reports from former Vakilabad prisoners about repeated, unannounced group executions of inmates. Reliable sources indicate that numerous executions have taken place inside Vakilabad over the last year and more than 600 inmates remain on death row.

Authorities reportedly executed ten inmates in Vakilabad as recently as Tuesday, 12 October. The numbers of executions publicly announced by the authorities are considerably lower than the actual numbers. Amnesty International reports that at least 388 executions took place in Iran in 2009.

“These reports of Mashad executions indicate that Iran is executing even more people–dramatically more– than now estimated,” said Aaron Rhodes, a spokesperson for the Campaign.

“Especially given the Iranian government’s lack of transparency concerning executions, the Judiciary needs to provide a full account of what is happening inside Vakilabad’s death row,” he added.

Authorities do not release statistics on the implementation of death sentences, the names of the hundreds of convicts executed each year, or the crimes for which they were found guilty. Several former Vakilabad inmates reported that officials tried to limit information about group executions from leaving the prison.

“Families, lawyers, and prisoners themselves not only do not receive any written ruling pertaining to the execution, they have no idea when the executions will be carried out, let alone [having the family] present during the executions,” one former Vakilabad prisoner told the Campaign about executions at the facility. “The bodies are delivered the next day, after the families have paid the cost of the rope [used in the hanging],” he added.

“When [officials] want to perform the executions, prison telephones are cut off at around 4:00 p.m. so that no one can report the news to the outside world. The yards are evacuated, and [almost] all prisoners are moved inside the ward,” the former prisoner. “At this time everyone knows that it’s time for the executions. No one knows whose turn it is until the names are read on a loud speaker by [prison and judiciary officials] and [officials] and guards remove the prisoners from the ward.”

“We are concerned that if these executions are in fact taking place in Mashad, then are other prisons executing in secret also?” asked Rhodes.

The Campaign’s sources reported that within the prison there are “cell representatives,” prisoners themselves, permitted by officials to attend these pre-execution procedures.  “That’s how after the executions are carried out, names and numbers of prisoners are revealed and most prisoners find out about them.”

One former prisoner described a group execution in late October 2009. “I was in Ward 6-1, so I could see the number of people executed (46) with my own two eyes.  I saw their ritual religious cleansing, and them writing their wills.  After these procedures, they were transferred to the location where they were executed.”

According to multiple accounts, the majority of inmates on Vakilabad’s death row were convicted for narcotics-related crimes. Some reported that they were tortured and forced to make confessions, but that trial judges ignored their claims of physical coercion.

Ahmad Ghabel, a religious scholar and critic of the government, was detained at Vakilabad prison. “The statistics I kept with myself during those three months was more than fifty people [were executed],” Ghabel told the Campaign. “When I say more than fifty, it is because I do not wish to misstate the number by even one person. If I take note of what other prisoners reported as well, adding them, perhaps the numbers would be more than this.”

“It seems to me that in order to avoid a huge international uproar about the issue, [Vakilabad prison officials] do this in silence and don’t make any announcements about the executions,” Ghabel added.

After his release in June, Ghabel spoke publicly about these secret executions. On 8 September 2010, Ghabel was summoned to the Revolutionary Courts of Fariman and detained. Ghabel’s wife told the Campaign that they believe authorities detained him in response to his statements regarding executions in Vakilabad prison.

In February 2010, during Iran’s Universal Periodic Review at the United Nations Human Rights Council, several UN member states, including Brazil, Germany and Slovakia, advocated Iran impose a general moratorium on the death penalty. In December 2009, the United Nations General Assembly Resolution 64/176 expressed concern about “the continuing high incidence and increase in the rate of executions carried out in the absence of internationally recognized safeguards” and called upon Iran to abolish public executions, juvenile execution, and executions by stoning.

Iran executes the second highest number of individuals annually of any nation, after China, and has the highest per capita rate of executions. The numbers of executions has risen dramatically under Ahmadinejad’s administration. In 2005, when he took office, Iran executed 86 prisoners and this number rose to at least 388 in 2009.