Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Debate Over Child Executions Roils Iran’s Presidential Vote

By FARNAZ FASSIHI–

TEHRAN, Iran , The day before two of his young clients were to be hanged, lawyer Mohamad Mostafaei went to a Justice Ministry office here to request a stay of execution.

Mr. Mostafaei’s errand should have been routine, if solemn: He represents 30 of the 135 criminals under the age of 18 on Iran’s death row. Instead, he says, he was detained and grilled for an hour and a half, part of Iran’s widening crackdown on human-rights activists.

“Anything can happen to you at any time,” said Mr. Mostafaei, 34 years old. A Justice Ministry spokesman said the mid-May incident wasn’t a detention, and that Mr. Mostafaei was merely asked the purpose of his visit.
Agencies Suffer in Iran

As Iranians prepare to elect their next president on June 12, a range of civil-liberties issues — from juvenile executions to the freedom to blog — have become hot topics. Ending a period of relative openness, the government has pursued a clampdown on dissidents, human-rights activists, journalists and students, the likes of which hasn’t been seen here in decades.

The crackdown is led by conservative lawmakers who rose to power in recent years. Analysts say Iran’s regime tends to view dissent as a national-security risk and a departure from the ideals of Iran’s Islamic revolution of the 1970s under Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

In June’s vote, all three of the major candidates seeking to unseat President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — two reformists, and one conservative — have criticized his government for its lack of tolerance. Each has promised more personal and social freedom if elected.

Iran’s use of the death penalty in juvenile cases has become particularly controversial, largely due to efforts by Mr. Mostafaei. The past two years, Iran led the world with a total of 28 hangings of youth offenders. Iran’s constitution stipulates that the age of maturity for boys is 15, and for girls, 9 — the ages at which Islamic law calls for children to take on religious duties such as prayer and fasting. (Executions aren’t carried out until the person reaches 18.)

Some other Islamic countries also have juveniles on death row, but executions are rarer. According to Human Rights Watch, since January 2005, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Yemen have carried out a total of six juvenile executions.

In some U.S. states, death penalties for crimes committed by juveniles over the age of 15 remained legal until 2005, when the Supreme Court said the punishment should be reserved for individuals who had committed their crimes after reaching the age of 18. That ruling ended a 29-year era in which the U.S. executed 22 people for crimes committed as juveniles.

Iran’s Parliament, under intense pressure from local activists and international human-rights groups alike, recently approved legislation to make it tougher — although not impossible in murder cases — to sentence juveniles to death.

“The issue of juvenile executions has preoccupied us. We are not indifferent to world public opinion about this matter, and we are trying to find a solution,” said Ali Shahrokhi, a cleric and lawmaker who heads the Parliament’s judiciary committee.

The legislation, must still win the approval of the Guardian Council, a conservative committee of clerics, to become law.

Mr. Mostafaei and others want Iran to ban juvenile executions altogether by changing the age of maturity to 18, where it stood before the 1979 Islamic revolution.

Earlier this month, one prominent presidential candidate who is also a cleric, Mehdi Karroubi, denounced child executions and said he would end them if elected. The next day, the conservative newspaper Kayhan called Mr. Karroubi an agent for Zionists.

“The intimidations won’t stop us from doing what we believe is right,” said Mr. Mostafaei. The day after his run-in with authorities earlier this month — with his two clients scheduled to be hanged at dawn — Mr. Mostafaei gathered several dozen protesters at 4 a.m. near the execution grounds, shouting the names of Muslim saints and calling for an end to child executions.

Just minutes before sunrise, prison officials announced a six-month stay of execution. His two clients, both convicted of murder in their teens, remain alive, for now.

However, their stay of execution isn’t much of a guarantee. Earlier this month another of Mr. Mostafaei’s clients, a young woman named Delara Darabi, was hanged in violation of a two-month stay she had obtained.

Word of Ms. Darabi’s fate came when the executioner let her phone her family. “Oh mother, I see the hangman’s noose in front of me,” she said, according to Mr. Mostafaei. At age 17, Ms. Darabi had confessed to a murder that took place in a jewelry heist, but later said her boyfriend was the killer and that she took the blame to protect him.

Human-rights activists have long complained that Iran has curbed civil liberties. In the past few years, reform-minded newspapers and magazines have been shut one by one. In May, one such paper published by another presidential candidate, Mir Hossein Mousavi, lived for only one day before a court ordered it to shut.

Movies and books go through rigorous layers of censorship. Art galleries must seek approval for every item to be displayed. Restrictions like these were put in place or expanded over the past four years during Mr. Ahmadinejad’s tenure.

Mr. Ahmadinejad dismisses claims that human rights have deteriorated. “I have not been informed that anybody has spent time in prison for criticizing the president, who is the No. 1 executive of the country, after all, or has been subjected to persecution of any sort. It’s really very free,” he said last September at a press conference at the United Nations General Assembly.

The president’s office hasn’t responded to interview requests from The Wall Street Journal.

As recently as five years ago, under President Mohammad Khatami, Iran was relatively progressive in the Islamic world, as embodied in its expanding array of human-rights groups, charities and other so-called nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs. Between 1997 and 2005, as many as 7,000 such domestic groups worked in areas as diverse as women’s issues, children’s cancer, transvestites’ rights and environmental policy.

When Mr. Ahmadinejad came to power in 2005, he set out to limit their activity. The Ministry of Interior created a special office to supervise them. The government also set new restrictions on United Nations activities regarding NGOs, requiring them to work only with groups recommended by the government.

In interviews, nearly two-dozen NGOs said they must now get the government’s OK for every activity, from naming board members to holding fund-raisers.

“The regime has made it clear that it does not like NGOs and it’s very afraid of us,” said Shirin Ebadi, a Nobel Peace Prize recipient whose own organization, Iran’s Center for the Defense of Human Rights, was shut down in January.

The government believes some NGOs are fronts for foreign spies. In January, Iranian intelligence officials said they uncovered a coup plot involving the Central Intelligence Agency and a local AIDS charity.

Tehran suspects the U.S. is trying to stir up a “velvet revolution” — a peaceful uprising like the one that overturned communism in the Czech Republic two decades ago. It cites Congress’s 2006 decision to allocate $75 million toward social programs in Iran. “Our enemies have officially announced that they want to infiltrate our civil society and have even declared a budget for their plans,” said Ali Fouladi, who heads the Interior Ministry’s department for monitoring NGOs. “We will outsmart them.”

The U.S. and other countries have denied that they aim to overthrow the government. “Yes, we support reform and defend human rights, but there’s a world of difference between that and trying to start a revolution here,” said a senior Western diplomat in Tehran.

Mr. Mostafaei began his human-rights advocacy by volunteering with Rahi, an NGO that doled out free legal advice to women prisoners. He sought clients by reading crime stories in local papers.

Today he runs a private law practice. Along a narrow, tree-lined street in central Tehran, a bronze plaque with the words “The Protectors” marks his office.

“We defend and protect victims whom the law does not protect,” he said recently, sitting at his desk there. The walls are decorated with artwork by death-row clients including Ms. Darabi, the woman executed earlier this month. One of her oil paintings hangs above a fireplace, depicting an old man with a violin.

Mr. Mostafaei’s reputation grew after he won a case five years ago involving a teenage girl, Nazanin Fatehi, who faced execution for stabbing and killing a man who she said was trying to rape her. Nazanin was 15 years old at the time of the stabbing.

After Mr. Mostafaei won her release, parents of other death-row children sought him out. He is both attorney and therapist, of sorts. During a recent interview, his phone rang — it was the mother of a client. “It’s OK. Don’t cry,” he says. “You have to be strong.” He tells her he saw her son that morning.

Mr. Mostafaei grew up in a poor family with five siblings and a father who forced the children to take jobs. In elementary school, he said, he worked at a brick factory.

“I’m mostly seeking justice for children because I suffered so much as a child,” he said.

As a young man, he took Iran’s national university entrance exam, and ranked in the top 50. He ended up at the prestigious Tehran University Law School.

His budding law career coincided with Iran’s reform years, a period starting in late 1997 when politicians moved away from the strict ideology rooted in Ayatollah Khomeini’s 1970s Islamic revolution.

The clampdown began more recently. In March 2007, Rahi, the NGO where Mr. Mostafaei volunteered, was shuttered by Iran’s Revolutionary Court, which deals with national-security matters. Rahi’s founder, lawyer Shadi Sadr, was put in solitary confinement for two weeks and charged with conspiring to overthrow the Iranian leadership with foreign funds via a “velvet revolution.” Ms. Sadr is awaiting trial on bail.

Other NGOs also say they have come under pressure. The president of Mahak, a widely known Iranian NGO that helps children with cancer, said security forces last year conducted an unannounced audit of its financial records.

“These are the darkest days for NGOs,” said Zahra Eshraghi, who runs a women’s organization that she says was instructed several years ago to avoid advocacy work by the Interior Ministry. Ms. Eshraghi is also the granddaughter of Ayatollah Khomeini.

As for Mr. Mostafaei, he is responding to the pressure with unconventional means of advocacy. He recruited Iranian movie stars to campaign for his cause, although in November the judiciary subpoenaed the stars and warned them to stay away from publicly campaigning against juvenile executions.

He also runs a blog that tracks human-rights cases. And this past summer, Mr. Mostafaei made a documentary about juveniles on death row. The film opens with the voice of Behnam Zareh, a former client of his, who was convicted of murder at age 15 after killing another boy in a fight over a bird.

“I want to stay alive. Please, please I want to stay alive,” the young man says. The recording is his final phone conversation with Mr. Mostafaei before being hanged last August.

Source: The Wall Street Journal