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Iran’s Rising Number of Executions: Sign of Systematic Impunity


Last week, Iran Human Rights Monitor reported that about the rising trend of executions in Iran. The recent confirmation of Ebrahim Raisi as the regime’s new president seems to have accelerated the trend. Raisi is notorious for his involvement at the highest level of the massacre of 30,000 political prisoners in the summer of 1988.

The overall execution rates bear out the expectation that Raisi’s ascension to the presidency would coincide with a surge in arrests and harsh legal punishments. Iran Human Rights Monitor recently affirmed that conclusion with its monthly report, referencing not only execution rates but also notable instances of politically motivated legal action, including humiliating parades of accused criminals which stand alongside the regime’s longstanding practice of public execution as a means of intimidating the population.

IHRM noted that at least 26 individuals were executed in total in July. This implies that the overall trend is still moving upward and will continue to do so. The possibility remains that either of these figures might be lower than the actual number of executions carried out by the Iranian judiciary. Tehran has a long history of avoiding official announcements of executions so as to downplay the true prevalence of the practice.

In a virtual conference held in August to discuss the 1988 massacre, Mrs. Maryam Rajavi, the president-elect of the National Council of Resistance of Iran, urged various United Nations entities and international human rights defenders to “visit the Iranian regime’s prisons and meet with the prisoners there, especially the political prisoners.” This recommendation was, of course, supplemental to the NCRI’s call for a formal commission of inquiry regarding the massacre, but it served to emphasize that the legacy of the 1988 massacre remains alive today in Tehran’s sense of impunity regarding other human rights matters.

This sentiment was previously expressed by seven UN human rights experts when they wrote a letter to regime authorities in September 2020. The document condemned the failure of relevant international bodies to follow up on information regarding the massacre in 1988, and it noted that this “had a devastating impact on the survivors and their families as well as on the general situation of human rights in Iran.” The letter was published for an international audience in December after Tehran declined to reply, and thus it conveyed the authors’ appeal for international measures leading to the sort of accountability that the regime refuses to pursue among its officials.

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The UN human rights experts have remained attentive to various current human rights issues since the publication of the letter regarding the 1988 massacre, and on Friday the Office of the High Commission on Human Rights issued a statement calling renewed attention to the case of Heidar Ghorbani, a Kurdish political prisoner who was sentenced to death in January 2020.

Statements on this case by the UN High Commissioner and other human rights defenders emphasize a lack of due process and the apparent use of torture in securing a false confession from Ghorbani. The justification for his death sentence, and for his prison sentence as well, is nothing other than his Kurdish ethnic identity.

The outcome of Ghorbani’s case will arguably provide a good deal of insight into the extent of Iran’s confidence in its own impunity, given that there is substantial international attention focused on it. In the past, such attention has variously compelled regime authorities to delay executions and re-examine cases, even though almost all of those cases later had their initial sentences upheld, leading to the executions being carried out at a later date when foreign scrutiny had subsided.

Present conditions inside Iran seem to suggest that Tehran’s confidence in its impunity is particularly high at the outset of the Raisi era. This conclusion is supported by the escalating rate of executions and by the arrest and prosecution of both activists and the attorneys who might defend them.

The persecution of lawyers is likely to have knock-on effects upon the rate of executions and other forms of harsh punishment, though it may also prompt more international scrutiny. As the NCRI recently asserted in its recent conference on the 1988 massacre that international efforts to hold Raisi accountable for his role would be essential to confronting the regime’s impunity and sending the message that further crimes against humanity will not be tolerated.