UN rights chief: Iran executions ‘state sanctioned killing’

People take part in a rally in Zurich in solidarity with the protests in Iran and to honour protesters executed by the government, January 7 2023. (Keystone/Michael Buholzer)

The UN human rights chief has accused Iran’s government of “state sanctioned killing” as he presses to visit the country.

The United Nations human rights chief said on Tuesday that Iran’s government was weaponising the death penalty to strike fear into the population and stamp out dissent, warning that recent executions in the country amounted to “state sanctioned killing”.

“The weaponisation of criminal procedures to punish people for exercising their basic rights – such as those participating in or organising demonstrations – amounts to state sanctioned killing,” Volker Türk said in a statement.

“The Government of Iran would better serve its interests and those of its people by listening to their grievances, and by undertaking the legal and policy reforms necessary to ensure respect for diversity of opinion, the rights to freedom of expression and assembly, and the full respect and protection of the rights of women in all areas of life.”

Four people taking part in the protests that have gripped the country since September have been executed in the past month following expedited trials, the UN Human Rights Office statement said. It added that the executions violated international human rights law.

Mohsen Shekari was executed on 8 December, according to the UN. Four days later, Majidreza Rahnavard was executed only 23 days after his arrest on 19 November. Two men, Mohammad Mehdi Karami and Mohammad Hosseini, were hanged this weekend on 7 January for allegedly killing a member of the security forces.

All were executed secretly without their families being informed, the statement said, which in itself constitutes a violation of human rights law.

The UN has received information that at least 17 others have been sentenced to death, with two executions imminent – that of 19-year-old Mohammad Boroughani and 22-year-old Mohammad Ghobadlou, who have been charged with “efsad-e fel arz” (corruption on Earth) for allegedly insulting security officers. It said up to 100 more people are facing charges for capital crimes.

Türk said there were numerous violations of due process and fair trial in the cases, including the application of vaguely worded criminal provisions, denial of access to a lawyer of choice, forced confessions obtained through torture and denial of a meaningful right for appeal or to present a defence.

The UN human rights chief added that the death sentences were imposed following convictions on charges such as moharebeh (waging war against God) and efsad-e fel arz that fall far short of ‘the most serious crimes’ as required by international human rights law..

“I reiterate once more my call to the government of Iran to respect the lives and voices of its people, to impose an immediate moratorium on the death penalty and to halt all executions,” Türk said.

Addressing a Geneva press briefing on Tuesday, senior UN rights official Mohammad Ali Alnsour said Türk is ready to visit Iran and engage with authorities there, including a possible meeting with supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khmenei, although he said there was no agreed date or terms of reference for such a visit.

A separate meeting is planned between Türk and Iranian authorities “very soon”, he added, although he could not give details.

“We cannot just stay silent when there are very serious violations,” he said.

According to the UN, thousands of people have been detained since the nation-wide protests erupted in Iran last September following the death of 22-year-old Jina Mahsa Amini, who died shortly after she was arrested by the country’s “morality police” for allegedly wearing her hijab improperly.

Hundreds have been killed in the government’s brutal crackdown on demonstrations, which have called for the downfall of the Islamic Republic’s regime.

The Human Rights Council voted in November to set up an independent fact-finding mission to investigate Iran’s crackdown on the protests and potential human rights abuses. Alnsour told reporters that the mission had already received thousands of submissions.

Following the vote, Iran’s foreign ministry said it will have “no form of cooperation” with the UN probe, which it claimed had a “political” nature. Tehran has blamed the unrest on its foreign enemies such as the United States.