Developments during the last years
Only China currently executes more people annually in absolute terms worldwide. The execution figures in Iran have risen alarmingly in recent years: While 94 people were executed in 2005, including eight minors, in 2009 the figure was at least 388, according to Amnesty International. In 2014, 289 executions were carried out, according to public figures, and Amnesty International believes that at least 454 more executions took place.
The number of executions in 2015 was particularly shocking, with Amnesty International estimating that at least 977 people were executed, which also included minors. In 2016, according to the annual report of the human rights organization Iran Human Rights, at least 530 people were executed, 296 of them for drug-related offenses. For 2017, Amnesty International estimates at least 507 executions, 28 of which were carried out in public. For the first time in 2018, annual execution numbers dropped to “only” 253; at least 251 executions are projected for 2019.
Looking at the number of executions in relation to the size of the population, Iran is the country that executes the most people in a global comparison.
Legal system and legal basis
In Iran, the traditional Islamic law, the Sharia, applies in a very literal interpretation.
Crimes and offenses that are punishable by death include: premeditated murder, adultery, rape, homosexuality, alcohol consumption and sodomy.
Renunciation of Islam can also result in the death penalty. Murder, rape, trafficking of drugs, or blasphemy can also be punished by lashing.
“Moharebeh” (enmity against God) can also be punished by death in Iran. This offense is very vaguely worded in Iranian law. Charges are often brought against individuals accused of armed struggle against Iran, armed robbery, or espionage. Political dissidents are generally at risk of being convicted under this charge.
Execution of minors
Although mentally handicapped persons, children and adolescents may not be executed under Sharia law and under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights signed by Iran, the death penalty is repeatedly imposed on juveniles by special juvenile courts. The reason for this is the special interpretation of Islamic law, according to which girls are considered adults from the age of nine and boys from the age of fifteen.
According to reports by Amnesty International, 73 minors were officially executed in Iran between 2005 and 2015. The number of unreported cases is estimated to be many times higher.
In the 1980s, thousands were convicted and executed in so-called summary trials, during which they had little opportunity to defend themselves. The mass trials and convictions of participants in non-violent protests after the 2009 elections also did not meet either rule-of-law or Islamic standards, so that Iranian critics also speak of an abuse of the law as an instrument of terror.
Sharia law recognizes the testimony of so-called “righteous men” as evidence; it is therefore decisive for the sentence and cannot be challenged by the defendant. It is not uncommon for the accused to have no lawyer at their side, and confessions are also forced through torture.
If someone is found guilty of murder, this does not necessarily mean his execution. The male relative closest to the victim can either pardon the person to be executed in return for financial compensation or demand the execution of the accused.
Execution procedure and method
Executions take place both in public (hanging on crane carts) and in secret (mainly by hanging or shooting). Special regulations apply to the rather rare stonings. For example, the stones must not be so large that those to be executed die immediately after the first stone is thrown. On the other hand, they must be large enough to actually inflict injuries.
During a stoning, women are buried in the ground up to their shoulders, men up to their hips. Afterwards, men standing in a circle around those to be executed throw stones at them until they are dead. If an executed person is able to free himself or herself from the earth during the stoning, this is considered a judgment of God and he or she is free. However, this happens very rarely.
Sources and further information:
On current execution figures from 2015 to 2019:
Iran Human Rights Monitor;” Death Sentences and Executions 2015;” Death Sentences and Executions 2017; “Death Sentences and Executions 2018,” Amnesty International Annual Reports. “Annual Report on the Death Penalty in Iran 2015,” Iran Human Rights annual report available for download, published 2016; “Annual Report on the Death Penalty in Iran 2016,” Iran Human Rights (IHR) annual report, published April 2017; “A glance at the abysmal human rights situation in Iran,” Iran HRM, 8. December 2017.
On the execution of children and juveniles in Iran,
“Growing up on Death Row: The Death Penalty and Juvenile Offenders in Iran,” Amnesty International report, published January 2016. See also the article, “Meet the teenage girls on Iran’s death row,” Quartz, February 21, 2016.
As of May 2020