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(Beirut) – Iranian authorities should immediately suspend any planned execution of Gholamreza Khosravi Savadjani and rescind his death sentence, Human Rights Watch said today. Savadjani, convicted of helping the dissident Mojahedin-e Khalq group, may be at imminent risk of execution. He is in Tehran’s Evin prison in Ward 350, where many political prisoners are usually held.

“Iran is one of the world’s leading abusers of the death penalty and commonly applies the penalty to political dissidents like Savadjani,” said Eric Goldstein, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Savadjani’s life hangs in the balance even though the authorities never asserted that he used violence against the state.”

Unconfirmed reports suggest authorities may execute Savadjani, 50, as early as September 10, 2012. A revolutionary court in Tehran sentenced Savadjani to death for the crime of moharebeh, or “enmity against God” in 2010 for cooperating with a television station abroad that is affiliated with Mojahedin-e Khalq, which the Iranian authorities consider to be a terrorist organization. Iran’s Supreme Court confirmed Savadjani’s death sentence on April 21.

Several informed sources provided information on the case against Savadjani to Human Rights Watch that raises serious due process and fair trial concerns. Authorities initially arrested him in 2008 and prosecutors charged him with espionage for his alleged transmission of information, photos, and possibly financial assistance to Simay-e Azadi, a London-based television station run by Mojahedin-e Khalq. A revolutionary court in the central city of Rafsanjan convicted Savadjani of espionage and sentenced him to six years in prison.

In July 2011, well into Savadjani’s prison term, the judiciary transferred the file to Branch 26 of the revolutionary court in Tehran, headed by Judge Pirabbasi. The sources told Human Rights Watch that an appeals court in Tehran ordered Branch 26 to change the charges against Savadjani and instead try him under the crime of moharebeh, over objections by Savadjani’s lawyers that a new trial constituted “double jeopardy” under Iran’s criminal procedure code.

In 2010, the lower court convicted Savadjani of moharebeh and sentenced him to death.

Under articles 186 and 190-91 of Iran’s penal code, anyone found responsible for taking up arms against the state, or belonging to an organization taking up arms against the government, may be convicted of moharebeh and sentenced to death.

The case against Savadjani raises serious due process concerns under the International Covenant on Political and Civil Rights, which Iran has ratified. Article 14(7) of the covenant states that, “No one shall be liable to be tried or punished again for an offence for which he has already been finally convicted.” According to the United Nations Human Rights Committee, which monitors compliance with the covenant, “In cases of trials leading to the imposition of the death penalty scrupulous respect of the guarantees of fair trial is particularly important. The imposition of a death sentence upon conclusion of a trial in which the provisions of article 14 of the covenant have not been respected constitutes a violation of the right to life.”

Article 6 states that the death penalty “may be imposed only for the most serious crimes.”Even if Savadjani were proven guilty as charged in a fair trial, the offense of providing information and money to a Mojahedin-e Khalq-affiliated television station would not meet this threshold, Human Rights Watch said.

Human Rights Watch has documented numerous cases in which Iranian security forces used physical and psychological coercion, including torture, to secure false confessions in security-related cases, and courts have convicted defendants of moharebeh in trials in which prosecutors relied primarily if not solely on contested confessions and failed to provide any convincing evidence establishing the defendant’s guilt.

A family member who spoke to Human Rights Watch said that Savadjani was in solitary confinement for 40 days during the interrogation and investigation phases of his prosecution in prisons in both Rafsanjan and Evin prior to being transferred to Ward 350 of Evin. He said the family met with Savadjani on September 3, but has not seen him since. He said the family is worried by rumors from inside Evin prison that authorities are planning to execute him on September 10. Neither Savadjani’s family nor his lawyers have so far been informed of an execution date, as is required by Iranian law.

Judiciary officials in Iran have a history of executing prisoners without properly informing their families and lawyers, Human Rights Watch said.

Iranian authorities have executed at least 30 people since January 2010 on the charge of “enmity against God” or “sowing corruption on earth” for their alleged ties to armed or terrorist groups. Several dozen prisoners are known to be awaiting execution on national security charges, including “enmity against God.” Human Rights Watch has documented that in a number of these cases, the evidence suggests that Iran’s judicial authorities convicted, sentenced, and executed people simply because they were political dissidents, and not because they had planned or participated in terrorist acts.

In 2011, Iran executed at least 600 people, a figure surpassed only by China. According to Amnesty International Iranian authorities have acknowledged at least 182 executions this year, but there are credible reports of at least 100 other unacknowledged executions, mostly of convicted drug offenders.

Human Rights Watch opposes the death penalty in all circumstances because it is unique in its cruelty and finality, and is plagued with arbitrariness, prejudice, and error. In addition, Iranian trials involving capital crimes have been replete with serious violations of due process rights and international fair trial standards. Iran should join the growing community of nations that have endorsed the UN General Assembly resolution calling for a moratorium on the use of the death penalty, Human Rights Watch said.

Proposed changes to Iran’s penal code would retain the death penalty, including for children and for crimes that would not ordinarily warrant the death penalty even in countries that use it, a review by Human Rights Watch found.

“The Iranian government should promptly do away with the crime of ‘enmity against God’ and similarly vague anti-terrorism laws that criminalize peaceful dissent,” Goldstein said. “And it should place a moratorium on its much-abused death penalty.” 

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