Surge in Executions and Human Rights Violations in Iran: Evidence of Rouhani's 'Moderate' Rule?

Iran: Ranks Number One in Executions Per Capita

Many Iranian citizens who voted for the moderate cleric Hassan Rouhani believed that he would deliver on his promises in improving the standards and conditions of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran. These human rights issues encompass areas ranging from freeing political prisoners, addressing the methods of torture, and restriction on freedom of press, expression and speech, to name a few.

Nevertheless, every report independently conducted by human rights watch groups; the United Nations, Amnesty International as well as the official statistical numbers revealed by the Iranian government, indicate not only that Rouhani has not delivered on his promises (not even keeping the status of human rights similar to that of his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's era), but that the condition of human rights has significantly worsened in Iran.

Recent reports by Amnesty International and UN watch groups have blasted Iran for the increase in persecution of ethnic and religious minorities, the cracking down on oppositional political figures, the mistreatment of political prisoners, arbitrary detention and unfair trials. The most controversial issue in the reports has been the surge in capital punishment and public executions.

Recently, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has sharply criticized Rouhani for failing to improve human rights since taking office in August. Ban pointed out, "He (Rouhani) has not made any significant improvement" in ending human rights abuses since taking office.

Surge in Capital Punishment: Iran Ranks Number One in Executions Per Capita

One of the most alarming trends indicating egregious human rights abuses has been the surge in executions, many conducted in public, under the presidency of the moderate Rouhani, particularly since the beginning of 2014. Iran is ranked number one, surpassing China, in leading the world in executions per capita. Executed people in 2014 included women, human rights activists, political activists, and religious ethnic minorities. Recently, the United Nations human rights spokeswoman Ravina Shamdasani referred to the rise of executions in the Islamic Republic by saying, "the surge in the use of the death penalty... has dampened hopes for human rights reforms under President Hassan Rouhani."

According to Ahmed Shaheed, the UN special rapporteur for human rights in Iran, at least 176 people had been put to death in January, February, and early March of 2014. Several were executed in public. At least 500 people were executed in 2013, with 57 publicly. Reportedly, those who were executed included 27 women and two children. These numbers are officially documented figures, but according to other sources, the figure for executions might be much higher. According to the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center, more than 500 people have been executed since Rouhani has taken office. In addition, the Islamic Republic has repeatedly refused to give permission to Shaheed to visit and investigate many of the abuse claims in Iran. The UN Secretary-General added, "The new government has not changed its approach regarding the application of the death penalty and seems to have followed the practice of previous administrations, which relied heavily on the death penalty..."

Hardliners v Moderates: Rouhani's Apologists?

Those who support Rouhani's government and those whose interests are vested in this government's power, exonerate Rouhani and his technocrat team from the surge in executions, public hangings, or other abuses. Some policy analysts, and even Western officials and politicians have bought the argument that the surge in executions is completely conducted by hardliners to undermine Rouhani's government, scuttle the ongoing nuclear talks, and weaken the moderate position in Iran.

The argument made by proponents of the current Iranian government suggests that if Rouhani succeeds in removing the threatening economic sanctions, and reaching a nuclear deal, the legitimacy and popularity of hardliners will be blemished. In other words, the moderates would be capable of further shoring up their political power and legitimacy in the country. As a result, the hardliners have been taking counterbalance measures, such as increasing the number of executions and level of crackdown, to secure their power.

The argument of the hardliners vis-a-vis the moderates might sound plausible in some analytical debates. However, when it comes to human rights abuses, this debate of hardliners versus moderates, is a classic political tactic and Machiavellian strategy used under several administrations by the Iranian government and by those who benefit from the establishment, economically and politically.

When it comes to human rights violations in Iran, such as the persecution of ethnic and religious minorities, arbitrary detentions and unfair trials, torture, executions, public hangings, and restrictions on freedom of press, expression and speech, there is no significant ideological division across Iran's political spectrum. In other words, there is a wide and general agreement among both the moderates and hardliners, particularly when it comes to the issue of conducting executions.

Even if we take the argument of those Western or Iranian scholars who attempt to exonerate Rouhani from the surge in executions and human rights violations in the Islamic Republic, any human beings would expect that a president of a country, who is elected by millions of votes and who calls for a moderate platform, would at least stand up, take a position and condemn the surge in executions and human rights abuses. He has the power, and support of millions of Iranians, to issue a minimal verbal or written criticism. The actual issue is that Mr. Rouhani is another classical power-seeking cleric who came from within the system and fully backs it, and is complicit in these human rights violations and executions. Although some proponents of Rouhani's government might point out that hardliners remain fully in charge of the judiciary and security apparatus in Iran, it is crucial to indicate that there is no clear separation of powers between Iran's judiciary, executive and legislative branches. More fundamentally, even if we accept the argument by proponents of the current government, claiming that Rouhani has no influence over the judiciary and security apparatuses, then the question still arises: Why did he make promises knowing that he would not be capable of delivering? In fact, these governmental branches are closely interconnected and people across the political spectrum, such as the head of Iran's Judiciary Human Rights Council Mohammad Javad Larijani, Chairman of the Parliament Ali Larijani, or Rouhani do not ideologically or politically disagree on human rights issues and the matter of executions.


Majid Rafizadeh, an American scholar at Harvard and political scientist, is president of the International American Council on the Middle East. He is originally from Islamic Republic of Iran and Syria.

A version of this post first appeared on Al Arabiya.