Reports of secret hangings and mass executions in Iranian prisons raised concerns among human rights groups about undeclared abuses committed in the world’s second biggest executioner after China.
The International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran (ICHRI), an NGO based in New York and the Netherlands, sounded alarm bells over undeclared executions, many taking place in groups, carried out at the Vakilabad Prison in the eastern city of Mashhad, the UAE daily The National reported Sunday.
According to the ICHRI’s statement, based on the testimony of former prison inmates, prisoners are in many cases executed in groups and the last mass execution took place on October 12 when ten prisoners were executed together. A former inmate told the ICHRI that he was witness to 46 executions in one day in October 2009.
According to Ahmad Ghabel, a religious scholar who spent three months at Vakilabad Prison earlier this year, at least 50 executions took place during his detention.
Ghabel, who was released on bail then detained again for speaking about Vakilabad executions in public, said the government does not release accurate figures of hangings and never acknowledges secret executions to avoid international outrage.
More than 600 inmates are currently awaiting execution in various Iranian prisons mainly for drug trafficking. The city of Mashhad is a major smuggling hub for heroin coming from Afghanistan.
Executions on the rise
Testimonies by former inmates indicate that the numbers of executions in Iran double from last year’s figure, said ICHRI spokesman Aaron Rhodes.
“We are concerned that if these executions are, in fact, taking place in Mashad, then are other prisons executing in secrecy also?” he said in a phone interview from Hamburg, Germany.
“The authorities are trying to curb these problems by using extreme punishments, which violate Iranian and international law, in an increasingly brutal policy of intimidation.”
Similar testimonies by Iran former Vakilabad prisoners and their families have been investigated by Amnesty International (AI). Although the findings are not yet completed, AI experts argue that reports of secret executions are true.
“We regard these allegations as credible,” said Drewery Dyke, a London-based expert on Iran in an interview.
According to analysts, the surge in execution rates reflects hardliners’ dominance in Iran’s judiciary. Imposing the capital punishment has also been recently accompanied by a rise in the use of torture in Iran’s prisons.
Statements by Iranian judges serve to highlight the growing tendency towards violent punishments. A few days ago, Ebrahim Raisi, Iran's deputy judiciary chief praised the recent amputation of a thief's hand as a “divine punishment” and “source of pride.”
A senior analyst in Tehran, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that new judiciary chief Sadegh Larijani, contrary to his predecessor, does not promote the reduction of executions especially in drug offences.
According to the ICHRI report, executions are carried out in the most secretive manner. The majority of prisoners get to know they would be executed only a few hours before. Neither their families nor their lawyers are notified and prison phone lines are disconnected in order to avoid leaks.
Under Iranian law, families of prisoners are to be informed of the time of the execution in order to visit the prisoner or be present at the hanging.
Names of the condemned are announced over a microphone after making sure prisoners are inside their cells then prisoners to be executed are taken from their cells to write their wills and undergo a religious cleansing ritual.
After the execution, the prison notifies the deceased’s family and they are allowed to retrieve the body after paying for the rope used in the hanging, a former prisoner told ICHRI.
The stance of the Iranian authorities towards secret executions, observers argue, is quite ambivalent. While information about executions is treated as highly confidential, the regime does not mind occasional leaks that they believe have a deterring effect.
Death penalty and drugs
In Iran, offences punishable by death include murder, rape, drug trafficking, armed robbery, adultery, treason, and espionage and the capital punishment is seen by the authorities as essential for preserving national security.
“According to multiple accounts, the majority of inmates on death row were convicted for narcotics-related crimes,” said the ICHRI. “Some reported that they were tortured and forced to make confessions, but that trial judges ignored their claims of physical coercion.”
Despite government claims to the contrary, human rights groups say that prisoners accused of drug offences are detained for a long time before the trial, allowed limited access to lawyers, and subjected to physical abuse.
Drug trafficking ranks first amongst Iran’s capital offences and clashes between security officers and more than 3,500 officers were killed in the past two decades in clashes with drug smugglers on the border with Afghanistan.
Iran is believed to have the world’s highest addiction to opium and heroin, which are usually available in cheap prices after failing to reach Europe from Afghanistan. Analysts argue that unemployment and social problems contribute to the rise in addiction rates.
At least 388 were executed last year, which makes Iran the world’s second in executions after China. In 2005, the year President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad assumed power, the number did not exceed 85.