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Iran Falsely Claims Human Rights ‘Progress’ Despite Executions, Honor Killings

Amnesty International activists protest against the death penalty in Iran outside Iran's embassy in Brussels October 10, 2019. (Yves Herman/Reuters)
Amnesty International activists protest against the death penalty in Iran outside Iran's embassy in Brussels October 10, 2019. (Yves Herman/Reuters)
Kazem Gharibabadi

Kazem Gharibabadi

Secretary-General, Iran High Council for Human Rights

“Islamic Republic of Iran has made significant progresses in protecting human rights.”


On February 28, Kazem Gharibabadi, the secretary-general of Iran's High Council for Human Rights, said Iran’s “principled” human rights policy is “based on protection and promotion of these rights for all walks of life in society.”

Gharibabadi said Iran’s respect for human rights is “deep-rooted both in our religious criteria and international commitments we have accepted.”

Gharibabadi made those comments during a United Nations Human Rights Council (OHCHR) hearing at which most of the participants condemned the Russian invasion of Ukraine and its humanitarian toll.

But Gharibabadi also criticized the “double standards” of countries like the United States on the issue of human rights.

“Islamic Republic of Iran has made significant progresses in protecting human rights,” he said.

That is false. Recent reports by international human rights organizations and Iranian activists belie Iran’s claims of human rights progress, particularly when it comes to the death penalty.

On February 18, the New York City-based Center for Human Rights in Iran, and 10 other human rights organizations, issued a joint statement calling on the governments involved in nuclear talks with Iran to maintain human rights sanctions against the country even if a nuclear deal is reached.

“These sanctions were imposed because of the Iranian government’s egregious rights violations,” the statement read. “These abuses include the criminalization of peaceful dissent, the imprisonment, torture and execution of peaceful dissidents, activists and other human rights defenders, and the killing of peaceful protesters, among many other human rights violations.”

Indirect talks to revive the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the 2015 deal under which Iran agreed to stop making weapons-grade uranium, are taking place in Vienna. The talks faltered after Russia demanded that its trade with Iran be exempted from the Western sanctions imposed on Moscow for its invasion of Ukraine.

On February 17, the European Parliament adopted a resolution calling on Iran to rescind all death sentences. The resolution noted that the rate of executions in Iran has increased since Ebrahim Raisi became president in 2021, and that Iran has the most executions per capita in the world.

The European Parliament said at least 275 people were executed in 2021, including 10 women. In addition, an estimated 400-500 women in Iran are murdered every year in so-called “honor killings,” which the country’s penal code permits under certain conditions.

Fariba Parsa, a scholar at the Middle East Institute, said reports of honor killings increased in Iran in recent years due to many women becoming aware of their rights to refuse forced marriages, get jobs and go to school.

According to the Oslo-based organization Iran Human Rights, which monitors the death penalty in Iran, 6,484 people have been executed since 2010, including 65 minors.

China remains the country with the highest number of executions, according to Amnesty International. The group said in its 2021 report that although there is no public data on the number of executions in China, thousands are believed to have been carried out.

Iran disputed the European Parliament resolution, saying it does not reflect facts and is politically motivated.

On March 5, human rights activists launched a Twitter campaign to advocate for the rights of political prisoners in Iran. The prisoners include Zeynab Jalalian, a Kurdish woman who was sentenced to death in 2009 for alleged membership in an armed Kurdish opposition group. According to Amnesty International, she was tortured while being interrogated without a lawyer.

Jalalian’s death sentence was reduced to life imprisonment in 2011.

In November 2021, the Women’s Committee of Iran said 41-year-old Maryam Khakpour was executed for drug-related charges. The group said she repeatedly pleaded not guilty, saying the drugs belong to her husband.

The committee said that among the women executed in Iran in 2021 were Razavi Khorasan, who was hanged in a prison in eastern Iran; Maryam Karimi and Zahra Ismaili, who were also hanged; and an unidentified 23-year old woman, who was executed in a prison in northwestern Iran.

Also in November 2021, a 27-year old man and 33-year old woman were sentenced to death in Iran for adultery.

The campaign launched by Iranian activists also called for the release Jamshid Sharmahd, a U.S.-based Iranian political dissident who, according to his family, was kidnapped by Iranian operatives in the United Arab Emirates in 2020 during a business trip. Iran’s government accuses Sharmahd of being part of a terrorist group that carried out a mosque bombing in 2008.

In 2008, a suicide attack targeted a mosque in Iran, killing 14 and injuring 200. Sharmahd’s family said he had nothing to do with the attacks.

The Iranian authorities have executed minors in violation of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.

In 2019, Human Rights Watch (HRW) denounced the executions of two 17-year-old cousins, Mehdi Sohrabifar and Amin Sedaghat, in south central Iran. Both were arrested when they were 15 years old on different accusations, including rape. The report said Sohrabifar had been diagnosed with intellectual disability and enrolled in a special school.

HRW says Iranian authorities usually keep arrested minors on death row until they turn 18 before executing them, claiming they are not children anymore.

In addition to arbitrary executions, Iran’s human rights abuses include death by negligence and unreported killings. In September 2021, Amnesty International said Iranian authorities had failed to explain how 72 people had died in custody since January 2010 and that no officials were held accountable for these deaths.

“In 46 of the deaths in custody cases, informed sources including the relatives and/or fellow inmates of the deceased reported that the death resulted from physical torture or other ill-treatment at the hands of intelligence and security agents or prison officials,” Amnesty said.

In October 2021, Javaid Rehman, U.N. special rapporteur for human rights in Iran, told the U.N. General Assembly that Iran uses the death penalty as a political tool.

Rehman criticized Iran’s flawed laws and vague criminal charges in the administration of the death penalty, including “waging war against God,” “corruption on earth” and “armed rebellion.”

In December 2020, Rouhallah Zam, a prominent journalist, was executed after Iranian authorities charged him with “sowing corruption on earth.” Zam was allegedly detained while in Iraq in 2019 and forcibly transferred to Iran.

Iran is also accused of abusing refugees. On January 26, Farhad Arian, a Senior Research Officer at the Edmund Rice Center in Sydney, Australia, said that the Iranian authorities’ strict policies continue to violate the rights of Afghan refugees, migrants and asylum seekers.

Those policies, he wrote, include “forced deportation, denial of education rights, lack of employment opportunities, forced labour, lack of access to healthcare, denial of right to liberty, no freedom of movement, forced family separation, regular physical abuses, mistreatment in detention and deportation centres, and forced recruitment to fight in Syria.”