Yesterday, Tehran’s prosecutor, Mahmood Jafari Dolat Abadi, announced that death sentences previously issued against six child offenders had been reversed, in line with the country’s amended penal code. But he failed to mention that in January alone, two young men arrested as children were executed, according to human rights groups, and at least 49 more child offenders remain in imminent danger of execution.

Article 91 of the Islamic Penal Code, in force since 2013, grants judges discretion to not apply the death sentence to children who do not understand the nature of their crime.

Shadows of an Iranian policeman and a noose are seen on the ground before an execution in Tehran, Iran. 

© 2005 Reuters

Despite this small step in the right direction, Iran is no closer to abolishing the death penalty for children. Several child offenders who were tried (or retried) under the “reformed” penal code still face execution, because judges believed they did not meet the criteria laid out in article 91.

One of them is Salar Shadizadi. Salar was 15 when arrested in February 2007 for fatally stabbing a friend. The Provincial Criminal Court of Gilan Province sentenced him to death in December 2007. In 2016, authorities granted him a retrial, but he was sentenced to death for a second time in November.

Hamid Ahmadi was sentenced to death over the fatal stabbing of a young man during a fight when he was 15. After his retrial in 2015, he was sentenced again to death. The case of Sajad Sanjari is similar: sentenced to death in 2012 for fatally stabbing a man when he was 15, Sajad was granted a retrial but sentenced to death a second time in 2015.

The Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which Iran is a party, places an absolute prohibition on the death penalty for offenses committed by persons under 18. Iranian law is in direct contradiction with this obligation, and while the 2013 penal code reforms were meant to bridge this gap, in practice they have not shielded children from the death penalty. Human Rights Watch opposes the death penalty in all circumstances due to its irreversible and cruel nature.

Prosecutors and judges have a critical role to play in upholding Iran’s human rights obligations. Not all child offenders sentenced to death have been granted retrials; Iranian prosecutors, including Mr. Jafari Dolat Abadi, should request retrials for all of them. More importantly, judges should interpret article 91 of the penal code in accordance with Iran’s obligation under the convention. This means no one should be sentenced to death for crimes they committed while under the age of 18.