Golnaz Esfandiari, RFE/RL
He was only 14 years old when, in October 2004, a
scuffle outside school landed him in prison. It was a cold afternoon in Saveh,
southwest of Tehran. Latif says a 16-year-old boy he didn't know attacked him
with a knife.
He says the attacker, later identified as Mansur, slashed his hand. Latif says he fought back and then grabbed the knife. He doesn't recall how the knife entered Mansur's neck -- and led to the boy's death.
Latif was arrested and convicted of murder.
Human rights activists in Iran are expressing concern over the fate of several child offenders who have been sentenced to death. They say several of them are facing imminent execution. Iran is one of the only countries in the world that executes individuals for crimes committed when they were minors.
And Iran's judiciary has come under greater international scrutiny, with Amnesty International on January 15 calling on Tehran to abolish death by stoning. Amnesty said that nine women and two men are currently waiting to be stoned to death in Iran.
In most countries, minors under 18 convicted of capital crimes face less severe sentences than adults. There is a broad consensus, reflected in the UN's International Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), that minors cannot fully grasp the consequences of all their actions -- and so, are legally less liable for them than adults.
Growing Up Too Soon
But Nobel Peace Prize laureate and lawyer Shirin
Ebadi, who is representing Latif in court, tells RFE/RL's Radio Farda the
situation is different in Iran.
"Based on Iranian criminal laws, the age of liability for girls is nine and for boys 15. That means that if a child commits a crime, he or she would be treated as if a 40-year-old person committed that crime," Ebadi says.
Ebadi says that despite her efforts to save Latif's life, he can be executed any time.
"Unfortunately [the death sentence] has been finalized, our appeal demand was rejected. Now the sentence [depends on] the head of Iran's judiciary, Mahmud Shahrudi," Ebadi says.
"I call on him, based on the quality of the case and also on the fact that Iran has joined the [UN's] International Convention On the Rights of the Child, to prevent the execution of a person who wasn't even 15 at the time of the crime."
Latif is just one of many child offenders on death row in Iran, a country that the New York-based organization Human Rights Watch calls the world's leading executor of children and juvenile offenders.
Drewery Dyke of Amnesty International says his organization and other rights groups believe that between 70 and 80 child offenders are facing the death penalty in the Islamic Republic.
"The particular concern with regard to these sort of developments is that there was forward movement in the sixth [parliament] to stop this practice to bring Iran in line with the international obligation that it itself said it would live up to," Dyke says.
Human rights groups say that by executing child offenders, Iran violates its obligations under the CRC. Under the UN convention, any person under the age of 18 is considered a child.
Iran's judiciary often issues death sentences for minors and executes them once they turn 18. There have been also cases where criminal offenders have been executed while they are still minors.
In 2005, a 16-year-old girl was hanged in public for having what was called "illegitimate sexual relations."
But the most recent known case of juvenile execution was the hanging of 21-year-old Makwan Moloudzadeh in December 2007. Moloudzadeh was hanged for a rape he had allegedly committed when he was 13. He had pleaded not guilty and witnesses had reportedly retracted their testimonies.
His execution led to protests and condemnation by
human rights groups and the United Nations.
Human rights activists and lawyers representing minor offenders including Moloudzadeh say that sentences against them were handed down following quick and hurried decisions and despite flaws and shortcomings in the proceedings.
Nasrin Sotudeh, a Tehran-based lawyer who represents Soghra Najafpur, a young woman sentenced to death for a murder committed when she may have been only 13 years old, says that despite calls by human rights advocates to ban child executions, Iran's judiciary continues to issue death sentences against juvenile offenders convicted of capital crimes.
"[The judiciary] sends a message to rights activists that not only it doesn't value their activities, but also that it is determined to ignore their calls and demands," Sotudeh says.
During the last year, Amnesty International recorded the execution of five juvenile offenders in Iran. Over the past two years, Iran has stepped up its overall use of the death penalty.
In 2007, some 300 people were reportedly executed, an increase over the 177 known executions that took place in 2006.
Iranian authorities defend their use of the death penalty by saying that it is an effective deterrent and increases security. Rights activists, who say the death penalty is a cruel punishment that breeds violence, reject that claim.
Usually, executions in Iran are by hanging. But according to recent Iranian press reports, two men convicted of homosexual rape in Fars, southern Iran, were sentenced to death by putting them in a sack and throwing it off the top of a cliff.
According to Iran's form of Islamic Shari'a law, homosexuality is punishable by death and the judge can choose from five methods including throwing off a height and demolishing a wall on the offender, a method whose use has not been reported in the past 30 years.
About six months ago, a man convicted of adultery was stoned to death in Ghazvin.
(Radio Farda correspondent Niusha Boghrati contributed to this report.)
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