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Minors in Iran could face death penalty on protest-related charges

Thousands make their way to a cemetery Oct. 26 in the hometown of Mahsa Amini, an Iranian woman whose death in police custody sparked nationwide protests against the government. (-/AFP/Getty Images)

Three minors charged with crimes related to recent protests in Iran could face the death penalty in what rights groups say is new escalation in a brutal campaign to keep young people from participating in the uprising.

The three teenagers are on trial in a Tehran suburb with a dozen others on charges of killing a police officer, state media reported. Prosecutors with the Revolutionary Court system, a special branch of the judiciary that tries national security crimes, have also accused the defendants of “corruption on earth.” Both crimes carry the death penalty in Iran.

“These are grossly unfair trials that are designed to instill fear among the population,” Raha Bahreini, an Iran researcher at Amnesty International, said of recent legal proceedings involving protesters.

“This is also a reflection of the increasing use of the death penalty by the Islamic Republic as a tool of political repression,” she said.

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For months, Iran has been gripped by anti-government protests, ignited in September by the violent death of a young woman, Mahsa “Jina” Amini, in police custody in Tehran. The demonstrations started as a movement against the Islamic Republic’s conservative dress code — Amini was detained for an alleged clothing violation — but has since morphed into a nationwide revolt against Iran’s clerical rulers.

Young people have played a prominent role in the protests, but they have also suffered in the ensuing crackdown. More than 400 Iranians, including 60 minors, have been killed in the unrest, the activist news agency Hrana reported.

Iran ranks among the top countries for executions, including executions of children, despite having signed several U.N. conventions prohibiting the death penalty for minors. Amnesty International said it confirmed three juvenile executions this year, unrelated to the recent protests.

Under Iranian law, the Revolutionary Court is technically barred from trying minors. But authorities have accused the three juvenile defendants, along with the others, of using knives, rocks, and boxing gloves to kill a volunteer member of Iran’s Basij paramilitary force on Nov. 3.

Hearings were held Wednesday and Thursday in Karaj outside Tehran. And at the trial, the presiding judge said the three teenage boys — Arin Farzamnia, Amin Mehdi Shokrollahi and Amir Mehdi Jaffari — could be tried alongside the adults because the judge was trained for both criminal and juvenile hearings, the state-run judicial news agency Mizan reported.

This is “exactly against the interests of the children and Iranian procedural law,” said Hossein Raeesi, a former lawyer in Iran and now a professor at Carleton University in Ottawa.

The boys all pleaded guilty, according to Mizan, but rights groups say there is little expectation of a fair trial. Iranian officials frequently force political prisoners and their families to make false or incriminating statements.

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According to Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the New York-based Center for Human Rights in Iran, the defendants were denied access to their lawyers and were represented instead by court-appointed counsel.

The boys’ fathers also spoke in court, Mizan reported, asking the judge in near similar terms to punish their sons appropriately — but with leniency. The father of Shokrollahi said he told his son not to go to protests planned by “enemies,” echoing the state narrative that says Western media and intelligence agencies fomented the unrest.

According to Bahreini, one of the boys’ adult co-defendants was tortured while in prison and hospitalized with broken ribs and breathing problems. She cited a medical note and primary sources who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of safety concerns. The defendant, Hamid Ghareh-Hassanlu, was not in court Wednesday but was present and questioned by the judge on Thursday, according to Mizan.

About 18,000 people have been arrested since September, and at least 36 of them have been charged with capital crimes, Ghaemi said. Some death sentences have already been issued, though none have been carried out.

In an interview with Reuters on Tuesday, the U.N. special rapporteur on Iran, Javaid Rehman, said he was worried by the “campaign” of death sentences that has accompanied the crackdown.

Last month, Volker Türk, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, also expressed alarm at the rising number of executions in Iran.

“As of September 2022, the overall number of executions had reportedly passed 400 for the year, for the first time in five years. This is a substantial increase from at least 330 and 276 executions in 2021 and 2020, respectively,” he told a special session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva on Nov. 24.

Children were among the thousands killed during political purges in the decade after the 1979 revolution. In recent decades, minors have not been executed on charges stemming from periodic anti-government protests, though they have been for mainly alleged drug-related and murder charges.

In recent years two Iranian Kurdish teens — Saman Naseem in 2015 and Barzan Nasrollahzadeh in 2019 — were found guilty of “waging war against god” by the Revolutionary Court — but had their death sentences overturned after an international outcry.

correction

An earlier version of this article included an incorrect spelling of Hossein Raeesi’s surname. The article has been corrected.

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