Cartoon of hanging in Iran, the unhappy birthday

Saving young lives from execution in Iran

Raha Bahreini from our Iran team describes how Amnesty has managed to raise awareness about the death penalty and save juvenile offenders from the gallows in Iran.

It starts with a panicked phone call.

Our contact tells us that a juvenile offender (a person aged below 18 at the time of their crime) has just been transferred to solitary confinement – the final step before execution.

This is often our first glimpse of this young person and the desperate situation they are in. Why? Because the families of those on death row often fear reprisals if they publicize the plight of their loved ones. They sometimes believe that international lobbying and public campaigning will only complicate the situation and hasten the execution. At times, the authorities themselves give families false assurances, claiming that if the family does not publicize the case, their loved ones might be spared.

The moment we are prompted to intervene is often the moment when the authorities’ promises are exposed as hollow and the young person is just days or hours away from execution. 

Once we get the call, it’s a race against the clock – and winning literally becomes a matter of life and death.

Raha Bahreini

A race against the clock

Once we get the call, it’s a race against the clock – and winning literally becomes a matter of life and death.

We scramble to collect court documents and testimonies, verifying them through reliably informed sources. We work swiftly and under pressure alongside our media and campaigning colleagues to issue a press release and send urgent appeals to our network of activists. We co-ordinate efforts among our global offices and organize Twitter storms, letter-writing campaigns, and email actions.

Through all this, we urge our activists to generate a global outcry about this young person who, up until a few days ago, had been suffering in isolation on death row.

Once we have exhausted every avenue, there is nothing left to do but wait.

At this point, we feel helpless, imagining that young person frightened and alone in their cell. We keep in touch with our contacts, scrabbling for updates. Iran is several hours ahead of London and they execute at dawn, so we keep awake until late,checking our phones for good news – while dreading the worst.

Lives saved

Our greatest moments of relief come when we hear that we have saved a life – as we did when Alireza Tajiki was spared execution last month. He had been arrested when he was just 15 years old and sentenced to death in 2013 on the basis of torture-tainted “confessions”. When we learned of his execution date, we had just four days to save him. But in those four days we got hundreds of people to appeal to Iran’s authorities while we engaged in diplomatic interventions. And it worked.  The authorities stopped his execution within 24 hours of the moment he was scheduled to be hanged. Although Alireza Tajiki is still at risk of execution, this short-term victory gives us time to build on our efforts to save him once and for all.*

Saman Naseem, whose death sentence was eventually quashed after Amnesty's intervention. © Private
Saman Naseem, whose death sentence was eventually quashed after Amnesty's intervention. © Private

Alireza isn’t our only success. There is Salar Shadizadi, who we saved twice from execution. Like Alireza, he was sentenced to death for a crime committed when he was 15 years old. First, we convinced the authorities to postpone his execution and move him out of solitary confinement in August 2015. When they rescheduled his execution to November, we stopped them again – despite having just a few days to do it.

There was also Saman Naseem, who had been scheduled to hang in February 2015. He was sentenced to death based on “confessions” that he said were extracted through torture. We launched a worldwide campaign to stop his execution. Then, the day before the execution, Saman was transferred to an undisclosed location where he remained for the next five months. In that time, we mobilized our activists to demand that the authorities reveal his fate and whereabouts. In July 2015, his family was finally informed that he was alive and was allowed to visit him. The authorities quashed his death sentence and granted him a retrial – two positive steps that we had campaigned for. 

The power of a movement

Over the past 18 months, thousands of people worldwide have spoken out against Iran’s use of the death penalty on juvenile offenders, which is illegal under international law.

These efforts have shed light on the plight of more than 160 juvenile offenders languishing on Iran’s death row. They have also hugely increased the reputational cost of executing juvenile offenders for the Iranian authorities.

With help from Amnesty’s supporters, we have achieved a fantastic outcome for Alireza*, Salar* and Saman.

Mohammad Reza Haddadi's execution has been postponed six times. © Private
Mohammad Reza Haddadi's execution has been postponed six times. © Private

But our work is far from finished. The immediate threat of execution may be over, but the tortuous waiting game continues for these and other young people growing up on Iran’s death row. Only yesterday, Mohammad Reza Haddadi – who has spent the last 12 years on death row for a crime committed when he was 15 – was spared execution a sixth time, thanks to yet another public campaign on his behalf.

And so our struggle continues, until the authorities stop giving juvenile offenders the death penalty – so that no child faces the gallows in Iran again.

*Since this piece was written, there have been two updates to the cases covered here. Sadly, time ran out for Alireza Tajiki in August 2017, when he was hanged by the Iranian authorities. Salar Shadizadi was finally released from prison on 25 April 2017 after spending nearly a decade on death row.