Iran continues to use the death penalty in violation of international law, including death sentences for crimes failing to meet the “most serious” crime threshold, the use of torture, and performing public executions. According to Iran Human Rights (IHRNGO), there have been at least 277 executions thus far in 2023, with at least 106 executions in the first 20 days of May, constituting the “bloodiest month” in more than five years.

“What we’re witnessing in Iran are not executions, but extrajudicial mass-killings to create societal fear to maintain power. In order to stop the Islamic Republic’s killing machine, firm and concrete action is needed by the international community and not just expressions of regret and condemnations,” stated IHRNGO Director Mahmood Amiry-Moghaddam.

Death sentences for drug-related crimes, efsad-fil-arz (corruption on earth), moharabeh (waging war against god), and other non-lethal offenses violate international human rights law that limits the use of capital punishment to the “most serious crimes.” Amidst a high number of executions for drug-related charges in May 2023 – in line with trends from the previous year in which 44% of executions were for drug-related charges – three protestors were executed on May 19, sparking widespread international condemnation. Saleh Mirhashemi, Majid Kazemi, and Saeed Yaghoubi (pictured) were arrested during nationwide protests sparked by the September 2022 death of Mahsa Jina Amini. All three were convicted of moharabeh allegedly based on false confessions obtained through torture. According to a family member, two days after Mr. Kazemi’s execution, Iranian agents visited the family, assaulted his brothers and parents, and arrested three of his siblings. 

Members of both government and civil society condemned these executions. The U.S. envoy for Iran, Robert Malley, tweeted that such actions were “an affront to the human rights and basic dignity of all Iranians.” Along with condemnation, the European Union called on Iran to abolish its death penalty.

Diana Eltahawy, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa, emphasized the unfair trial proceedings, stating “The shocking speed at which these men were ushered to their deaths illustrates the Iranian authorities’ flagrant disregard for the rights to life and a fair trial.” The apparent lack of due process characterized in these three cases is largely representative of many cases in the country. Data from the Iran Prison Atlas found that 100% of protesters arrested between September 16 and December 31, 2022 were denied access to a lawyer.

The United Nations Independent International Fact-Finding Mission established to investigate human rights violations by the Iranian government released a statement that said they were “deeply alarmed at the continuing executions of protesters pending investigations of alleged human rights violations,” and regarded the executions of the three protestors as “profoundly concerning,” especially due to “allegations of their having been convicted and sentenced through confessions obtained under torture.” Meanwhile, UN experts “urge[d] the Iranian Government to stop this horrific wave of executions.” Earlier this month, on May 9, UN Human Rights Chief Volker Türk regarded the conservative average of 10 executions in Iran a week as “an abominable record,” and urged a moratorium with view towards abolition; in a letter dated May 10, UNHRC President Vaclav Balek announced the appointment of Ali Bahreini, Ambassador and Permanent Representative of the Islamic Republic of Iran to the United Nations to chair the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) Social Forum in November 2023.

Trends in the previous year demonstrated a spike in executions following the protests of teachers in May 2022 and following protests sparked by Ms. Amini’s death

Commenting on the Iran Human Rights 2022 report, Director, Mahmood Amiry-Moghaddam said: “The international reactions to the death sentences against protesters have made it difficult for the Islamic Republic to proceed with their executions. To compensate, and in order to spread fear among people, the authorities have intensified the execution for non-political charges. These are the low-cost victims of the Islamic Republic’s execution machine. In order to stop this machine, the international community and civil society inside and outside Iran must show the same reaction to each and every execution.”

IHRNGO warns that two Afghan nationals are at risk of public executions in violation of Articles 6 and 7 of the ICCPR. Iran conducted two public executions last year, along with the execution of at least three juveniles (ages 17 and 16 at the time of the crime), though more are suspected. According to IHRNGO, the juveniles were kept in prison until they reached the age of 18 and then were executed.