By Denise Hassanzade Ajiri
31 March 2016
As 160 under-18s wait on death row in the Islamic Republic, an NGO is raising blood money and public awareness to halt executions of juvenile offenders
On the night of 22 March 2009, 17-year-old Hamid was in his dad’s mini-bus when their neighbour’s son, Ayyoub, 16, got in. Hamid was in the business of selling mobile phones, and Ayyoub had been in dispute with him for days over a cellphone he’d bought from him. As their argument became heated, Hamid grabbed part of a seat cover and strangled Ayyoub.
Hamid was sentenced to death by hanging. Murder in Iran carries capital punishment even for minors who are incarcerated until the sentence is carried out when they turn 18. The execution can be halted only if the victim’s family pardons the offender, usually in return for blood money.
Ayyoub’s father, Ali Kouravand, considered a pardon but this was in Izeh, a city in the south-western province of Khuzestan with strong tribal networks. As Hamid and Ayyoub were from different tribes, the father could not decide on his own. His tribe set stringent conditions for a pardon. They demanded that the killer’s family pay the victim’s a large sum, and then to leave Izeh.
It took the NGO Imam Ali’s Popular Students Relief Society much negotiation before Ayyoub’s family agreed to a pardon. In December 2015 Kouravand took his family to Ahvaz prison to meet his son’s killer – knowing that by pardoning Hamid, his family would be boycotted by their tribe, at least for a while.
Hamid had been prepared by Farzad Hosseini from Imam Ali Society. “His mind was frozen, he didn’t know how to react,” says Hosseini. “Before he entered the room where Ayyoub’s family were waiting, I told him: ‘Kiss their hands and apologise. Keep your head down’.”
Hamid did as he was asked. He bowed and kissed Kouravand’s hand, and in response Kouravand kissed his cheek, pardoned him and gave him his blessing. The family received around $35,000 in blood money, partly gathered by Imam Ali society through public fundraising.
Imam Ali’s Popular Students Relief Society was founded in 1999 by a group of students at Tehran’s Sharif University of Technology led by Sharmin Meymandi-Nejad, originally to combat poverty. Today 15,000 volunteers are involved in projects to help the vulnerable in twelve provinces including Tehran, Fars, Isfahan, Kermanshah, Hormozgan and Qom.
A playwright and university teacher, Meymandi-Nejad had been intrigued in 1997 by the case of Gholam Reza Khoshrou, known as khoffash-e shab (the night bat), who was tried and executed for the murder of nine women, some of whom he had raped. Meymandi-Nejad followed the story of Khoshrou in prison with the aim of making a documentary but was struck by the hardships Khoshrou had faced as a child, growing up with a step-mother in a poor and violent neighbourhood before being sent to a juvenile detention centre and at 18 to prison, where, he told his phycologist, he was raped many times by other prisoners.
When Khoshrou was executed, Meymandi-Nejad promised himself he would do his best to help kids in violent neighbourhoods to keep them from becoming another Khoshrou. This led by 2006 to Meymandi-Nejad’s decision to work against the execution of juvenile offenders.
Since then the group has saved 25 juvenile offenders - including one woman - from execution and are working on nearly 50 other cases. Where offenders’ families cannot afford the blood money, the group raises funds from the public through conferences and online campaigning.
Cases usually come to their attention when juvenile offenders’ families seek their help, as Imam Ali Society lacks access to court files. “We face lots of restrictions, there is no systematic support,” says Hosseini, 33, who became involved eight years ago when a civil engineering student at Sharif University. “We can’t even visit our clients in prison easily. It depends on the prison staff who sometimes out of humanity let us pay limited visits to the offenders.”
After gathering information by reading official documents, talking to the offender’s family, and if possible visiting the offender in prison, comes what Hosseini describes as the “very difficult and complicated” task of approaching the victim’s family to seek a pardon.
By the time the Imam Ali Society is involved, the case is usually a few years old, which as Hosseini says, means the victim’s family anger and desire for revenge have had time to fester. The visit is often far from smooth.
Hosseini says he and fellow volunteers were attacked by one family of a murder victim: “They wanted to kill us.” But over time they were not only able to talk to the family but even convince them to share a meal with the offender’s family.
“Everything depends on how we treat the [victim’s] family,” he says. “When we approach the next of kin, we see them as our own family. We put ourselves in their shoes. To us, the person who was killed is like our own brother or father.”
Hosseini carries with him a photograph of a father of seven killed ten years ago by a 17-year-old male, forgiven by the victim’s family last autumn. “I really love him like my own father.”
But however time-consuming the process can be, most cases are not successful. Hosseini says only one or two out of 100 see the victim’s family pardoning the juvenile offender. He cites the case of Alireza Shahi, hanged in November 2015 in Rajaei Shahr prison in Karaj city, west of Tehran, seven years after he killed someone during a street fight when he was 18.
“We tried so hard to convince the victim’s family, but they didn’t want to listen at all,” recalls Hosseini. “Even the night before the execution, we went to the prison and were next to his [Shahi’s] family until dawn. We were hoping that maybe the execution would be halted, but in the morning he was executed. I visited Alireza in prison twice. I hugged him. He was like my own brother. He was so innocent. It all had happened during a fight. I really can’t understand - why should this kid be executed?”
The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child says no death sentences should be imposed for offences committed by individuals under 18. Iran ratified the convention in July 1994, but the age of adult criminal responsibility remains nine lunar years for girls and 15 lunar years for boys.
While Imam Ali Society’s ultimate goal is to change the law and stop all executions of juvenile offenders, it has welcomed more limited changes. In May 2013 a new Islamic Penal Code was adopted, with Article 91 allowing a judge to impose an alternative punishment if there is doubt over the offender’s maturity and wisdom, or if the judge determines the juvenile did not comprehend the nature of the crime or its consequences. In December 2014, the general board of the Supreme Court ruled that all juvenile offenders on death row were entitled to request a retrial based on Article 91.
But these changes didn’t bring actual results. Hosseini says since 2013 they have encountered two or three cases positively affected by Article 91. Amnesty International reported 12 executions of juvenile offenders in 2014 and four in 2015: there had been four in 2012 and nine in 2013.
Iran doesn’t deny it executes juvenile offenders but often disagrees with numbers reported. The authorities also argue they are trying to make changes. In January in a meeting with the UN’s Committee on the Rights of the Child in Geneva, Mahmoud Abbasi, deputy for human rights and international affairs at the justice ministry, said that reforming policies would not work without changing the attitudes “particularly of policy-makers and those directly involved with children”.
Neither the UN nor Iranian activists are prepared to ease up. On 14 March, during the 31st session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, the UN special rapporteur on Iran Ahmed Shaheed said that “at least 73 juvenile offenders were reportedly executed” in Iran between 2005 and 2015. He added that “at least 160” others are on death row.
Three representatives from Imam Ali Society, including Hosseini, were present during the session. On 14 March, in response to Shaheed’s report, a representative read a statement noting the lack of implementation in many cases of Article 91 and restating opposition to executing those who committed the offence when aged under 18.
Hosseini says change should come primarily from below. “We believe that most of our social and human rights issues are solvable if we empower civil society within the country,” he explains. “When we started working years back, public mentality was different. People didn’t want to get close to imprisoned kids. But now through our efforts people are willing to help juvenile offenders, even murderers. Currently several thousand people [in Iran] are in favour of the abolition of death penalty for juvenile offenders, so now the judiciary and those in charge have realised these laws need to be changed.”