Iran: Secret execution of young man arrested at 15 a cruel assault on child rights

Iranian authorities have secretly executed a young man who was a child at the time of his arrest and had spent nearly a decade on death row, Amnesty International has learned. Sajad Sanjari was hanged in Dizelabad prison in Kermanshah province at dawn on 2 August, but his family were not told until a prison official asked them to collect his body later that day.  

In August 2010, police arrested Sajad Sanjari, who was then 15, over the fatal stabbing of a man. Sajad Sanjari said the man had tried to rape him and claimed he had acted in self-defence, but in 2012 he was convicted of murder and sentenced to death. 

“With the secret execution of Sajad Sanjari, the Iranian authorities have yet again demonstrated the utter cruelty of their juvenile justice system. The use of the death penalty against people who were under 18 at the time of the crime is absolutely prohibited under international law, and constitutes a cruel assault on child rights,” said Diana Eltahawy, Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International.

“The fact that Sajad Sanjari was executed in secret, denying him and his family even the chance to say goodbye, consolidates an alarming pattern of the Iranian authorities carrying out executions in secret or at short notice to minimize the chances of public and private interventions to save people’s lives. We urge the Iranian authorities to put an end to these abhorrent violations of the right to life and children’s rights by amending the penal code to ban the use of the death penalty against anyone who was under 18 at the time of the crime immediately.” 

With the secret execution of Sajad Sanjari, the Iranian authorities have yet again demonstrated the utter cruelty of their juvenile justice system

Diana Eltahawy, Amnesty Intenrational

Sajad Sanjari was first convicted and sentenced to death in January 2012. During his trial he admitted stabbing the deceased but said he had done so in self-defence after the man tried to rape him. He said the man had threatened to attack him the previous day, so he carried a kitchen knife to scare him away. 

The trial court rejected Sajad Sanjari’s self-defence claims after several witnesses attested to the deceased’s good character. The court added that Sajad Sanjari could not argue self-defence because he was warned ahead of time and therefore had ample time to raise the matter with the authorities or seek help from residents of his village.

The conviction and death sentence were initially rejected by the Supreme Court in December 2012, due to various flaws in the investigation process, but were eventually upheld in February 2014.

Sajad Sanjari was granted a retrial in June 2015 after new juvenile sentencing guidelines were introduced in the 2013 Islamic Penal Code, granting judges discretion to replace the death penalty with an alternative punishment if they determine that children had not understood the nature of the crime or its consequences, or there were doubts about their “mental growth and maturity” at the time of the crime.

However, a criminal court in Kermanshah province re-resentenced Sajad Sanjari to death on 21 November 2015 after concluding, without any explanation, that he had attained “maturity” at the time of the crime. In reaching this conclusion, the court did not refer Sajad Sanjari to the Legal Medicine Organization of Iran, a state forensic institute, for an assessment and dismissed the opinion of an official court advisor with expertise in child psychology that Sajad Sanjari had not attained maturity at the time of the crime. During his first trial in 2012, the court had found that he had reached “maturity” at 15 on the basis of his “pubic hair development”.

The sentence was subsequently upheld by the Supreme Court and a later request for retrial was denied.

In January 2017, the Iranian authorities halted Sajad Sanjari’s scheduled execution, following an international outcry.

Execution looms for other young men arrested as children

Two other young men, Hossein Shahbazi and Arman Abdolali, arrested and sentenced to death for crimes that took place when they were 17 years old, are currently at risk of imminent execution. Their trials were marred by serious violations, including the use of torture-tainted “confessions”.

Hosseini Shahbazi’s execution was scheduled for 25 July 2021 but was postponed at the last minute following an international outcry. His execution could be rescheduled at any moment.

Amnesty International has identified more than 80 individuals across Iran who are currently on death row for crimes that took place when they were children.

In 2020, Amnesty International recorded the executions of at least three people convicted for crimes that took place when they were under 18, making Iran the only country in the world to carry out such executions. 

Since January 2005, Amnesty has recorded the executions of at least 95 individuals who were under 18 years of age at the time of the crimes of which they had been convicted.

The real numbers of those at risk and executed are likely to be higher.According to Iranian law, in cases of murder and certain other capital crimes, boys aged above 15 lunar years and girls aged above nine lunar years may be held as culpable as adults and can, therefore, be punished with the death penalty.

As a state party to the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Iran is legally obliged to treat anyone under the age of 18 as a child and ensure that they are never subjected to the death penalty or life imprisonment.