The head of Iran’s judiciary, Ayatollah Shahrudi, should immediately order a stay of execution for Mohammad Reza Haddadi, who was sentenced to death for a crime that he allegedly committed at the age of 15, Human Rights Watch said today.

Human Rights Watch has learned that Haddadi is at risk of execution in the province of Fars.

Judicial authorities should investigate defense claims that Haddadi did not commit the crime with which he was charged. They must also look into claims that his co-defendants pressured and bribed Haddadi to confess. Whatever the outcome of such an investigation, Haddadi’s death sentence should be quashed as being a violation of Iran’s human rights obligations not to execute juvenile offenders.

“Executing someone for a crime committed as a child is always wrong, but the flawed trial in this case compounds the injustice,” said Clarisa Bencomo, Middle East children’s rights researcher for Human Rights Watch. “The head of Iran’s judiciary should halt the execution and order a full investigation into the case.”

Haddadi was sentenced to death in 2004 after being convicted on the basis of his confession and statements from his co-defenders. However, he retracted his confession prior to the conclusion of his trial, and his co-defendants also subsequently withdrew their statements implicating him.

Human Rights Watch also called on the Iranian government to immediately and effectively ban the death penalty in all cases of persons under 18 at the time of the alleged offense. Iran leads the world in executing juvenile offenders – persons under 18 at the time of the crime – and is known to have executed at least six juvenile offenders in 2007. According to Amnesty International, as of January 2008 at least 86 juvenile offenders were awaiting execution in Iran.

The Criminal Court in Kazeroon sentenced Haddadi to death on January 6, 2004, for the August 2003 kidnapping and murder of taxi driver Mohammad Bagher Rahmat. Mohammad Reza’s co-defendants in the case, all over 18 at the time of the crime, received lesser sentences despite testimony directly implicating them in the murder. Haddadi had confessed to the crime but retracted his confession in a letter to the court, claiming that his co-defendants tricked him into taking the blame by falsely promising to provide his family with money and other benefits if he did so.

According to Mohammad Reza’s Haddadi’s lawyer, the first suspect arrested in the case, a relative named Karim Haddadi told investigators in October 2003 that he, Mehdi Sassani, Taghi Haddadi, and Mohammad Ghorbani assaulted the driver and that Sassani, Taghi Haddadi, and Ghorbani then beat and strangled him to death. Mohammed Reza Haddadi was not implicated in the murder by any of these suspects until later in the investigation (following which he was arrested by the police.)

According to his lawyer, when Mohammad Reza Haddadi learned that his mother had not received money from the co-defendants, he wrote to the court on November 4, 2003, retracting his confession. Despite his withdrawal of his confession, the court proceeded to sentence him to death for the murder, as well as to 15 years in prison for kidnapping and one year in prison for hiding the body.

Branch 42 of the Supreme Court upheld the death sentence on July 3, 2005, despite the fact that Haddadi’s appeal papers included statements in which his co-defendants withdrew their earlier testimony that had implicated him in the murder. Mohammad Reza Haddadi is currently held in Adel Abad jail in the city of Shiraz, and could be executed at any time.

Human Rights Watch opposes capital punishment in all circumstances because of its cruel and inhumane nature. In particular, in imposing death sentences on people for crimes committed before the age of 18, Iran flouts clear and specific human rights obligations. The imposition of the death penalty for such offenses is prohibited under two key human rights treaties that Iran has ratified: the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. These provisions reflect the reality that children are different from adults. They lack the experience, judgment, maturity, and restraint of an adult.

Iranian officials claim that legislation pending in parliament since July 2006 would end executions of juvenile offenders. In fact, the legislation would only offer the possibility of reduced sentences in a small minority of cases.