Iran: Two youths arrested at 17 face execution

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Hossein Shahbazi was arrested on 30 December 2018 and denied access to a lawyer and his family for 11 days while undergoing interrogations at a detention facility run by the Investigation Unit of Iran's police (Agahi) in Shiraz. He was then transferred to a juvenile detention facility but still denied access to his family for several days, after which his mother was allowed to visit him. The conviction and sentencing of Hossein Shahbazi to death, in part, on the basis of an opinion from the Legal Medicine Organization of Iran (LMOI) confirming his maturity at the time of the crime again highlights the complicity of doctors affiliated with the LMOI in the ongoing assault on children’s right to life in Iran. Amnesty International has previously called on the LMOI to refrain from participating in processes that inherently violate the human rights of children and facilitates their execution, and to adopt a position that all children under the age of 18 must be treated as less mature and culpable than adults, in accordance with established international principles of juvenile justice. Medical professionals have a clear duty to avoid any involvement in torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment including the death penalty. 

Arman Abdolali was first sentenced to death on 23 December 2015 after Branch 4 of the Provincial Criminal Court of Tehran convicted him of murder in connection with the disappearance of his girlfriend in 2014. In its verdict, the court stated that the way the murder was committed without leaving any trace indicated that Arman Abdolali had attained maturity and understood the nature and consequences of the crime. In reaching this decision, the court also relied on the opinion of a Children and Adolescent Court Advisor that Arman Abdolali understood the “abhorrent” nature of the crime committed. As such, the court concluded that he merited the death penalty as per Article 91 of the Islamic Penal Code. On 20 July 2016, Branch 29 of Iran’s Supreme Court upheld the conviction and sentence. Arman Abdolali was subsequently scheduled for execution on 1 January 2020, but following an international outcry his execution was halted. On 8 February 2020, Branch 15 of the Supreme Court granted Arman Abdolali’s request for a retrial after the Children and Adolescent Court Advisor involved during the original trial withdrew her initial opinion and noted in writing regret that she had issued the opinion without meeting Arman Abdolali and without having studied his criminal casefile or obtaining any information about his character. Arman Abdolali’s case was then referred to Branch 5 of Criminal Court One of Tehran Province for a retrial, which largely focused on whether there were any doubts about his maturity at the time of the crime to warrant replacing his death sentence with an alternative sentence; but the court did not consider the sufficiency of the evidence leading to his initial conviction. On 22 September 2020, Branch 5 of Criminal Court One of Tehran ruled that it was not possible to determine Arman Abdolali’s maturity years after the crime took place, and in the absence of any evidence to the contrary, “the prima facie presumption of full criminal responsibility” stands. This ruling highlights once again the flawed nature of Iran’s juvenile justice system, which considers that in cases of murder and certain other capital crimes, boys aged above 15 lunar years and girls aged above nine lunar years are as culpable as adults and, therefore, merit the death penalty. While Article 91 of the Islamic Penal Code grants judges discretion to replace the death penalty with an alternative sentence if they find that there are doubts about the individual’s full “maturity” at the time of the crime, in practice, there are no policies and guidelines in place on the types of evidence and the standards of proof needed to rebut the presumption of maturity. Amnesty International has repeatedly called on the Iranian authorities to amend Article 91 of the Islamic Penal Code to completely abolish the use of the death penalty for all child offenders, without any exception or discretion for judges. 

The absolute prohibition on the use of the death penalty against persons who were under the age of 18 at the time of the crime is provided in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child, both of which Iran has ratified. It is also recognized as a peremptory norm of customary international law, which means it is accepted and recognized by the international community of states as a norm which is binding on all states and from which no derogation is permitted. 

In a media interview on 30 June 2021, the deputy for Iran’s Hight Council for Human Rights, Majid Tafreshi, stated “When we are talking about under-18s, we are not talking about six or five years old. We are talking about mainly 17 years old big boys (where) the court recognized their maturity”. Amnesty International recorded the execution of at least three people who were under the age of 18 at the time of the crime in 2020. The organization has also identified over 80 other individuals on death row who were under the age of 18 at the time of the crime. In 2020, Iran carried out at least 246 executions.

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