Debate Over Child Executions …

Published on The Wall Street Journal, by Farnaz Fassihi, May 28, 2009.

TEHRAN, Iran – The day before two of his young clients were to be hanged, lawyer Mohamad Mostafaei went to a Justice Ministry office here to request a stay of execution.

Mr. Mostafaei’s errand should have been routine, if solemn: He represents 30 of the 135 criminals under the age of 18 on Iran’s death row. Instead, he says, he was detained and grilled for an hour and a half, part of Iran’s widening crackdown on human-rights activists.

“Anything can happen to you at any time,” said Mr. Mostafaei, 34 years old. A Justice Ministry spokesman said the mid-May incident wasn’t a detention, and that Mr. Mostafaei was merely asked the purpose of his visit.  

As Iranians prepare to elect their next president on June 12, a range of civil-liberties issues – from juvenile executions to the freedom to blog – have become hot topics. Ending a period of relative openness, the government has pursued a clampdown on dissidents, human-rights activists, journalists and students, the likes of which hasn’t been seen here in decades …

… Other NGOs also say they have come under pressure. The president of Mahak, a widely known Iranian NGO that helps children with cancer, said security forces last year conducted an unannounced audit of its financial records.

“These are the darkest days for NGOs,” said Zahra Eshraghi, who runs a women’s organization that she says was instructed several years ago to avoid advocacy work by the Interior Ministry. Ms. Eshraghi is also the granddaughter of Ayatollah Khomeini.

As for Mr. Mostafaei, he is responding to the pressure with unconventional means of advocacy. He recruited Iranian movie stars to campaign for his cause, although in November the judiciary subpoenaed the stars and warned them to stay away from publicly campaigning against juvenile executions.

He also runs a blog that tracks human-rights cases. And this past summer, Mr. Mostafaei made a documentary about juveniles on death row. The film opens with the voice of Behnam Zareh, a former client of his, who was convicted of murder at age 15 after killing another boy in a fight over a bird.

“I want to stay alive. Please, please I want to stay alive,” the young man says. The recording is his final phone conversation with Mr. Mostafaei before being hanged last August. (full text).

Write to Farnaz Fassihi.

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