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There has been an alarming escalation in use of the death penalty against protesters, dissidents and members of minority groups in Iran, Amnesty International said today, following the executions on 13 July of two Kurdish men in Urumieh prison in West Azerbaijan province. Diaku Rasoulzadeh and Saber Sheikh Abdollah had been convicted and sentenced to death in 2015 solely on the basis of torture-tainted “confessions” and amid overwhelming evidence pointing to their innocence.

Hours later a judicial official announced that the death sentences of three young men imposed in connection with the anti-establishment protests in November 2019 had been upheld. In addition, at least five prisoners from Iran’s Kurdish minority and three prisoners from Iran’s Ahwazi Arab minority are at risk of execution. Another Kurdish man remains forcibly disappeared and is believed to have been secretly executed by firing squad.

Amnesty International is calling on the UN and its member states to urgently intervene to save the lives of those at risk of execution, and urge Iran to stop using the death penalty to sow fear and silence political opposition.

“Diaku Rasoulzadeh and Saber Sheikh Abdollah are the latest victims of Iran’s deeply flawed criminal justice system, which systematically relies on fabricated evidence including ‘confessions’ obtained under torture and other ill-treatment to secure criminal convictions. Using executions as a tool to instil fear and maintain an iron grip on society is unimaginably cruel,” said Diana Eltahawy, Amnesty International’s Deputy Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa.

“The death penalty is always a cruel and inhuman punishment. The case of these two men is so marred with flaws and lack of any credible evidence that the horror of their executions is highlighted even further.”

Diaku Rasoulzadeh and Saber Sheikh Abdollah, who were in their early 20s and 30s respectively, were taken outside their cells in Urumieh prison on July 13. According to information leaked from inside prison, they were deceptively told by prison officials that their death sentences had been quashed by the Supreme Court and they were being taken outside prison to start their retrial process. Instead, the prison officials transferred them to solitary confinement and executed them in the early hours of the following day, without their lawyers receiving prior notice.

The two men had been on death row since 2015, having been sentenced in connection with a deadly armed attack in 2010, in which they had repeatedly denied involvement. Their trial was grossly unfair; it ignored the men’s strong alibis and relied exclusively on torture-tainted “confessions”, which, according to their lawyers, had been dictated to the men by officials from the ministry of intelligence and were riven with inconsistencies.

Chilling rise in death penalty

These latest executions follow a chilling rise in the use of the death penalty by Iran’s authorities apparently to intensify fear and deter popular protests over worsening political and economic crises engulfing the country.

Hours after the executions in Urumieh, the spokesperson of the judiciary announced that the death sentences of three young men imposed in connection with the protests of November 2019 in Tehran had been upheld by the Supreme Court. This is despite widespread international condemnation and public outrage.

Amirhossein Moradi, Mohammad Rajabi and Saeed Tamjidi underwent grossly unfair trials as well. Their allegations of torture and other ill-treatment were ignored and “confessions” extracted from Amirhossein Moradi without a lawyer present, reportedly through beatings, electric shocks and being hung upside down, were relied upon to convict them of “enmity against God” (moharebeh) through acts of arson and vandalism.

The men denied the accusations. Even if they were true, acts of arson and vandalism do not reach the threshold of the “most serious crimes”, involving intentional killing, to which the use of the death penalty must be restricted under international law.

Earlier on June 30, 2020, the judiciary announced that political dissident and journalist Rouhollah Zam had been sentenced to death for “spreading corruption on earth” (efsad-e fel arz) through running a popular social media news channel, called AmadNews, which the authorities have accused of inciting the protests of December 2017 and January 2018. His forced “confessions” have been repeatedly broadcast on state TV in recent months. His appeal is pending before the Supreme Court.

At least three death row prisoners from Iran’s Ahwazi Arab minority, namely Hossein Silawi, Ali Khasraji and Naser Khafajian, and five death row prisoners from Iran’s Kurdish minority targeted for real or perceived affiliation with armed Kurdish political opposition groups, namely Heydar Ghorbani, Houshmand Alipour, Saman Karimi, Arsalan Khodkam and Mohayyedin Ebrahimi, are also at risk of execution. All men were sentenced to death following grossly unfair trials which took place between 2016 and 2020 and relied primarily or exclusively on “confessions” obtained without the presence of a lawyer and under torture and other ill-treatment.

Another Kurdish prisoner on death row, Hedayat Abdollahpour, has been forcibly disappeared since 9 May 2020 as the authorities refuse to reveal the truth concerning his secret execution and return his body to his family. A seventh Kurdish prisoner, Mostafa Salimi, was executed on April 12, 2020 in the city of Saqqez, in Kurdistan province. He was executed shortly after he was recaptured in apparent reprisal for his escape from prison in late March amid protests and riots over the spread of COVID-19 in Iran’s prisons.

Amnesty International is concerned that death row prisoners from Iran’s disadvantaged ethnic minorities are particularly at risk, given the authorities’ pattern of executing prisoners from these groups when concerned about the eruption of popular protests.

“Iran’s increasing use of the death penalty as a political weapon for repression is alarming and warrants the immediate attention of the international community. Without urgent diplomatic and public action, more lives in Iran are at risk of being cut short by the state’s execution machine,” said Diana Eltahawy.

Details of latest executions in Urumieh

Diaku Rasoulzadeh, Saber Sheikh Abdollah and a third man, Hossein Osmani, were separately arrested in Mahabad in 2014. They were subsequently transferred to a detention centre in Urumieh, where they were held without access to their lawyers and families and mostly in solitary confinement for over a year. During this period, they said they were repeatedly tortured, including through severe beatings, floggings, electric shocks, sexual humiliation, suspension from the ceiling, and threats to arrest their relatives, to falsely “confess” that they had taken part in the 2010 armed attack and had travelled to Iraq for military training.

Branch 1 of the Revolutionary Court in Mahabad, which presided over their case, ignored compelling evidence showing that all three men were elsewhere at the time of the attack, and failed to investigate allegations of torture, even after Hossein Osmani showed the judge marks on his body. According to information obtained by Amnesty International, the men had been threatened by ministry of intelligence officials that they would be tortured further if they retracted their “confessions” in court. They had also been falsely promised to be spared the death penalty if they “co-operated”.

In January 2017, the Supreme Court quashed their convictions and sentences on the grounds of lack of evidence and referred their cases for retrial. Hossein Osmani’s death sentence was subsequently reduced to 30 years’ imprisonment, but Saber Sheikh Abdollah and Diaku Rasoulzadeh were sentenced to death again in October 2017. Their sentences were subsequently upheld without their concerns over torture being addressed and despite the lack of credible evidence. In the following years, their requests for pardon were repeatedly rejected.

Amnesty International opposes the death penalty in all cases without exception regardless of the nature or circumstances of the crime; guilt, innocence or other characteristics of the individual; or the method used by the state to carry out the execution. The death penalty violates the right to life as proclaimed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Media contact: Mariya Parodi, [email protected] 

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