(New York) – Iranian authorities should immediately suspend all use of the death penalty after reports that two death sentences for drinking alcohol issued by a lower court had been upheld. Iran should abolish the death sentence completely for crimes that are not considered serious and exceptional under treaties that bind it, and provide further public information regarding the case against these individuals.
On June 25, 2012, the official Iranian Students’ News Agency (ISNA) reported that the prosecutor general of Khorasan Razavi province, Hojjatoleslam Hasan Shariati, had confirmed that the Supreme Court had affirmed death sentences issued by a lower court against two people convicted of drinking alcohol. He was quoted as saying that the two “had consumed alcoholic drinks for the third time” and officials were “in the process of making the necessary arrangements for the implementation of the execution order.”
“Sentencing Iranians to death for consuming alcohol is a scary signal of how little Iran’s judges value Iranian lives and how casually they can make a decision to end them,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Iran’s courts apparently have nothing better to do than harass and even kill Iranians for engaging in dubious ‘crimes.’”
According to Iran’s penal code, consumption of alcohol is a hadd crime, or a crime against God, for which shari’a, or Islamic law, assigns fixed and specific punishments. The usual punishment for consumption of alcohol is 80 lashes, but article 179 of the code provides that individuals with two prior alcohol convictions will receive the death penalty upon their third conviction. The law allows a court to ask the Supreme Leader or his representative, usually the head of the judiciary, for clemency if defendants repent after being convicted of the crime based on their own confession. Clemency is not an option, though, if the conviction was based on witness testimony. It is not known whether the defendants in this case have repented, or whether their convictions were based on witness testimony or their own confessions.
Human Rights Watch has not been able to find any record of a case in the past 10 years in which authorities carried out an execution order against a person convicted of consuming alcohol. In 2007, branch 72 of the Tehran’s provincial criminal court sentenced a 22-year-old man named “Mohsen” to death after authorities arrested him for consuming alcohol for the fourth time. Qods online, a pro-government media outlet, reported that the court requested and received amnesty from the head of the judiciary on the defendant’s behalf and that he was subsequently released. His conviction was based on his own confession, the report said.
In June 2006, Amnesty International reported that Iranian authorities commuted the death sentence for consuming alcohol of Karim Fahimi, also known as Karim Shalo, and released him after he repented. A criminal court in the city of Sardasht had earlier sentenced Fahimi to death after he had been convicted of the crime on two previous occasions.
New penal code provisions in January passed by Iran’s parliament and approved by the Guardian Council, an unelected body of 12 religious jurists charged with vetting all legislation to ensure its compatibility with Iran’s constitution and shari’a, or Islamic law, retain the punishments of flogging and death for people convicted of consuming alcohol.
The new code removes article 179 of the current law mandating the death penalty upon the third conviction. Article 135 of the new code, however, mandates the death penalty for all hadd crimes, including consumption of alcohol, upon the fourth conviction.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has not yet signed the new bill into law. In April, Ayatollah Sadegh Larijani, the head of Iran’s judiciary, announced that in the meantime he had instructed courts to apply the current penal code but expressed hope that the president would sign the new provisions into law as soon as possible.
Human Rights Watch opposes capital punishment in all circumstances because of its irreversible, cruel, and inhumane nature. In 2011, Iranian authorities carried out more than 600 executions, according to several rights groups, even though the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and four UN experts pressed Iranian officials for an immediate moratorium on the death penalty. Government sources announced only around 350 of these executions. The vast majority were for drug-related offenses, including trafficking and possession.
Article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), ratified by Iran, states that “in countries which have not abolished the death penalty, a sentence of death may be imposed only for the most serious crimes in accordance with the law in force at the time of the commission of the crime.” Under international law, “most serious” crimes are typically those that result in the death of others. The Human Rights Committee, which authoritatively interprets the covenant, has said that the death penalty should be a “quite exceptional measure.”
“Iran’s penal code still needs a serious overhaul, especially because the new code retains provisions that allow the death penalty for moral or non-serious offenses,” Whitson said. “And these two sentences should be quashed.”