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Controversial public executions in Iran draw crowds

Though the arguments for public executions and punishment are not always religiously strong, they continue to be used, with the spectacles drawing big crowds.
The body of Iranian serial child killer Mohammad Bijeh hangs in the town of Pakdasht, south of Tehran March 16, 2005. Dubbed the 'vampire of the Tehran desert' by local media, Bijeh was sentenced to death for killing 17 children, most of them young boys he raped first, and three adults. He began to prey on children more than two years ago but the killings did not come to light because many victims were from illegal refugee families from neighbouring Afghanistan who were afraid to come forward. Pictures of t

The punishment of criminals in Iran is sometimes carried out in public. Ahmed Shaheed, the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran, has reported several cases of public execution and the humiliation of criminals. According to his March 2013 report on human rights in Iran, Shaheed "joins the [UN] Secretary-General’s view that 'executions in public add to the already cruel, inhuman and degrading nature of the death penalty and can only have a dehumanizing effect on the victim and a brutalizing effect on those who witness the execution.'"

However, public executions constitute a small percentage of all executions in Iran, as is the case with criminals being publicly flogged or humiliated. In a recent case, three thieves were given 74 lashes in public. These occurrences have become more common and intensified since the launch of a police operation targeting petty criminals some eight years ago. In some cases, male criminals were stripped in public and forced to wear women’s clothing or have a toilet ewer hung around their necks.

The police and the Justice Department defend these punishments and have even called them necessary. Lt. Gen. Ahmadi-Moghaddam, the high police commissioner, has frequently defended the police's harsh and humiliating treatment of the street toughs, stating that these criminals' intimidating character and notoriety must be broken in front of the people they terrorize. 

Ahmadi-Moghaddam said that by mistreating criminals — including a case of forcing two convicts to wear women’s clothing in the city streets — the police were simply enforcing a court-ordered punishment. At the same time, he does not fully approve of these punishments and has encouraged judges to employ more deference when handing out such rulings.

Due to a spike in a return to criminal activity, the police have concluded that the most effective way to break the character and standing of the convicts is in public, thus preventing them from continuing their criminal actions. However, since the public aspect of punishment is considered extra punishment in itself, the carrying out of such measures needs to take place under the supervision of courts. Based on Article 290 of Iran's penal code, the place and manner of carrying out a flogging punishment has to be decided by the court, which then ascertains its compliance with Sharia and principles of public safety.

A judicial official in the province of Tehran told Al-Monitor that convicts with extensive records are punished publicly in their own neighborhoods, so victims can have a chance to bring up charges. Also, in cases where the convict enjoys local notoriety or has committed a crime of public security, he will be punished publicly to deter other local criminals. 

Based on a judicial system memorandum, public execution can only take place when it is seen as necessary for the community. Additionally, no one can photograph the event without a permit from the head of the judicial system.

Others believe that public punishments have not only been unsuccessful in bringing a sense of safety to society, but they have even failed as a preventive measure. Two years ago, a man convicted of raping 30 women — known by the pseudonym the Black Scorpion — was executed publicly. Before his execution, one of his victims told Shargh newspaper: “Once, during the public execution of another rapist, a man was molesting and abusing me! Public execution does not prevent this sort of crime.”

Public executions occasionally bring out compassion in the people watching. The unusual reactions of the criminals, showing their lack of remorse, also weaken the effects of the punishment. In one such event, a murderer known by the pseudonym Ahmad Roussi (Russian Ahmad) kissed the penal officer, while another murderer called Kavousi laughed throughout the whole ordeal, waving to the crowd.

Serious criticism of the inhumane and humiliating aspects of these punishments, as well as their total disregard for human rights, has also been raised. Two months ago, Ahmadi-Moghaddam quoted a speech of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to police, reminding them of the need to be respectful of criminals' rights so as to avoid answering these convicts' complaints on judgment day.

Some religious figures also oppose these punishments. Ayatollah Sanei, a marja, or religious authority, in Qom, was asked a question in this regard. He replied that Sharia stipulates there is no need for public punishment, except in cases of adultery. He also specified that if public punishment violates human rights, bothers the convict's relatives or creates a negative view of Islam, then it is forbidden. He also said that taking children to witness these punishments is a sin and equally forbidden.

Surprisingly, Ayatollah Nouri Hamadani, a pro-government marja in Qom, replied differently. Penalties are better carried out in public, he said, and if it has adverse effects on some, then they should not participate. 

In Islam, there is another punishment, tashheer, which is basically public naming. It is designed for cases of bearing false witness, fraud and embezzlement. Tashheer has a practical use: By identifying a criminal, others will be saved from further incidents of fraud.

In the end, public punishment enjoys popularity, and it seems there is little will to change it. Instead, many insist it continue.

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