BEIRUT (Reuters) - The case presented by the Iranian judiciary was simple: In the southern province of Fars, Fatemeh Salbehi suffocated her husband after drugging him, a capital crime in the Islamic Republic.
What made the case controversial is that Salbehi was only 17, a minor by international legal standards, when she allegedly committed the crime. Her alleged confession also came during a series of interrogations where there was no lawyer present.
The case was retried but Salbehi was hanged in the Adel Abad prison in Shiraz last October.
The issue has come under scrutiny because of a scathing U.N. report on human rights in Iran last month which highlighted what it called the “alarmingly high” rate of executions in the country, including juveniles.
That report, along with an Amnesty International report in January, spurred commentary from ordinary Iranians on social media at least some of which criticized President Hassan Rouhani for not doing more to stop the juvenile executions.
Iran has the highest rate of juvenile executions in the world, despite being a signatory to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, an international human rights treaty that forbids capital punishment for anyone under 18.
Only a week before Salbehi’s execution, another juvenile offender was executed.
“The fact that there were two executions in less than two weeks just shows how indifferent and contemptuous the Iranian authorities are of their obligations,” said Raha Bahreini, the Iran researcher for Amnesty International.
In the past decade, Iran has executed at least 73 juvenile offenders, according to the January Amnesty report.
The juvenile executions have continued despite campaign promises made by Rouhani in 2013 to reform human rights. Since coming to office, Rouhani has been focused on foreign policy, such as the nuclear deal sealed with world powers last summer, and domestic issues like juvenile execution have been largely ignored, observers say.
“The administration can’t just keep hiding behind the nuclear issue,” said Hadi Ghaemi, the executive director for the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran. “Rouhani doesn’t seem at all interested to push for it, fight the battle and improve the human rights situation. And that’s a problem because we’re now into the third year of his term.”
Juveniles have been executed regularly since the establishment of the Islamic Republic in 1979. Under Iranian law, the age for legally defining adulthood is determined by puberty, 15 for boys and nine for girls. When there is a discrepancy between domestic law and international legal obligations, Iranian authorities have turned to domestic law.
A request for comment sent to the Iranian judiciary was not answered. The head of the Iranian judiciary, Sadeq Larijani, has previously said that allegations that Iran executes juveniles under 18 is a “complete lie”. No comment was immediately available from the presidency.
In recent years, the judiciary has generally held off on executing minors until after they turn 18. Salbehi was 23 when she was executed last fall. And there are at least 160 minors currently on death row, according to the United Nations.
“The trick they have come up with for the past ten years or so is to wait until the children turn 18 in prison and then execute them,” said Ghaemi. “Then they tell the international community that they were over 18.”
The juvenile executions have prompted an outcry. “The execution of juveniles has led to both domestic and international criticism,” said Saleh Nikbakht, a prominent lawyer in Tehran.
One prominent human rights activist who started a campaign to end the death penalty in Iran, Narges Mohammadi, was arrested last year on unspecified charges.
But there have been some cases where juvenile offenders have been spared the noose. A non-governmental organization called Imam Ali’s Popular Students Relief Society has had some measure of success in bringing together families of the victim and the accused. If the family of the victim agrees to forgive the accused, the execution is not carried out.
Judicial reforms were also put into place in 2013, prior to Rouhani’s taking office, which led to the retrial of a number of cases involving juvenile offenders. The sentences of the offenders were commuted in a handful of cases but in at least half a dozen cases the death sentence was upheld, according to Amnesty.
Inability to bring about any change on this controversial issue may cost Rouhani support for the presidential elections next year.
“It is a battle that he can win. There are so many aspects that are not defensible,” said Ghaemi. He added, “He may not get elected to a second term because he’s undercutting his own popular support.”
And without pressure from the other branches of government, it is unlikely that the judiciary will make significant changes to halt the execution of juvenile offenders.
“When it comes to executions the responsibility lies first and foremost with the judiciary but that doesn’t mean that the other branches of the state aren’t responsible,” said Bahreini.
Reporting by Babak Dehghanpisheh; editing by Giles Elgood