The guardian Reports
Iranian stars campaign to save lives of convicts on death row
Art and Experience: Celebrities in Iran have joined a campaign to save the lives of convicts on death row, encouraging forgiveness in a country that has one of the world’s highest records of executions.
Public figures including Shahab Hosseini, who won the best actor award at this year’s Cannes film festival, have thrown their weight behind efforts to persuade families of victims to choose forgiveness over retribution.
Reports from inside Iran show that an increasing number of Iranians held on murder charges are being spared the gallows as the nationwide campaign gains traction.
According to the Norway-based Iran Human Rights (IHR), which documents Iran’s use of the death penalty, the number of people whose lives were saved last year after being pardoned outnumbered those who were known to have been put to death for murder.
Iran’s Islamic penal code allows the victim’s heir – walli-ye-dam – to personally execute the condemned under qisas (retribution) laws, in some cases even by pushing away the chair the convict is standing on. The same law also allows families to pardon the convict, often in exchange for a financial compensation known as diyah.
A recent event at Tehran’s Koroush cinema, which was aimed at raising money for the families who are trying to secure a pardon, attracted big numbers. Hosseini was joined at the event by actor Mahtab Keramanti and the country’s vice-president for women’s affairs, Shahindokht Molaverdi. Nearly £60,000 was raised and at least one attendee donated her earrings.
Although the convicts in such cases are facing death because of murder or complicity in the crime, activists say people are showing sympathy because they favour forgiveness. Some, but not all, of such prisoners are women who have killed their husbands but activists say they were themselves victims of domestic violence.
Others include juvenile offenders who have committed crimes before reaching the age of 18, usually in a street brawl. Maryam Osoli and Sahar Mehabadi are both out of prison after being pardoned in recent months, according to activists.
“This is a welcomed phenomenon,” Mahmood Amiry-Moghaddam, an activist from the IHR, told the Guardian on the sidelines of the sixth World Congress Against the Death Penalty in Oslo. “People, where they have the possibility, choose forgiveness instead of death penalty.
“Traditionally families of murder victims are encouraged to choose retribution, but here they say no to retribution and refuse to take the responsibility of taking another life. You can see an increasing trend where more people choose forgiveness than retribution.” Some Islamic scholars have highlighted that while Qur’an allows qisas, it also encourages forgiveness.
In one prison, the lives of at least six women have been spared in the past six months because activists have been successful in persuading families to accept the diyah. But countrywide numbers are believed to be much higher.
Under the Iranian law, the woman’s blood money is only half that of a man, but Iran approved a law earlier this year making the blood money equal for men and women in cases involving car accidents. The usual diyah is about 1.9bn rials (£38,000) for unintentional killings but some families ask for much higher in other cases.
In 2015, at least 262 people on death row for murder were forgiven in Iran compared with 207 convicts executed for such crimes, according to the IHR.
Although the history of people showing forgiveness is not new, many activists say a recent incident was a turning point in significantly increasing such pardons last year: in April 2014, an Iranian mother spared the life of a young man who had killed her son at last minute in an extraordinary episode that drew the world’s attention and also appeared on the front page of this newspaper.
Despite this, Iran is still among the world’s top countries with the most executions because despite pardons in cases involving murder, drug-related executions have continued to surge. In most cases in Iran people put to death have been executed for drug offences.
Madyar Samienejad, an Oslo-based human rights defender, struck a cautious tone, saying that the ultimate change should come from a shakeup in the law. “In some cases, families are demanding very unreasonable amounts of money for financial compensation in order to pardon the convict and this is not a culture that should become the norm. Only a change in the legislation can guarantee that we would ultimately see a country without death penalty.”
Last year, Iran executed nearly 1,000 people, which was more than any other country apart from China. Executions in Iran, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia accounted for 89% of the total known executions worldwide in 2015.
In first six month of this year, Iran is known to have executed between 182 to 201 people, which is a considerable drop compared with last year but activists were not sure if it amounted to an indication in a change in policy as the country went through parliamentary elections, a period when the authorities normally refrain from executing convicts.
The Guardian travelled to Oslo for the sixth World Congress Against the Death Penalty on an invitation by its organiser, the French NGO Ensemble Contre la Peine de Mort (ECPM), which paid for its flight, accommodation and food.