Debate Over Child Executions Eoils 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.
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.
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