Languishing in a prison cell in southwestern Iranian city of Ahvaz, 21-year-old Razie Ebrahimi awaits her date with the gallows.
For decades, Iran has been brazenly violating international law and sentencing an untold number of juvenile offenders to execution by hanging. Most hopeless among them are young Iranian women, who often suffered from abuse in forced, underage marriages and who turned to violence as the only means to escape their circumstances.
As a 14-year-old girl, Ebrahimi’s father reportedly arranged for her marriage to an older neighbor, a schoolteacher with a university education. One year later, she gave birth to a son. For the duration of her marriage, Ebrahimi reportedly experienced physical and mental abuse at the hands of her husband, who would beat and insult her at the slightest provocation.
Three years into the marriage, after returning from a party at her husband’s aunt’s house, the couple fought and she was beaten. That night, Ebrahimi says she snapped.
“I couldn’t sleep all night, until the morning I was sitting above him looking at him. I was looking at him and I was thinking of what he had done to me and thinking about why he humiliates me and what can I do, what should I do. Every single event that happened is rolling in front of my eyes like a film and in the morning I took a gun and I shot him,” she is quoted as saying in Iranian newspaper Shargh Daily on Wednesday.
She buried her husband in their backyard, and her family turned her into the police not long after.
For the past four years, Ebrahimi has awaited execution by hanging for her crime. Ebrahimi came close to the noose once before. In May 2013, on the day her execution was scheduled, she informed the prison guards that she had only been 17 at the time of her crime and they stopped the proceedings and brought her back to jail.
“It’s all a matter of luck of who is taking her to be executed,” says Roya Boroumand, executive director of the Abdorrahman Boroumand Foundation, an organization that tracks human-rights abuses in Iran. “It’s like a lottery.”
But now, activists say her hanging could be imminent, and local media speculates it may happen this week.
At least three juvenile executions have been reported this year, according to HRW, though it’s impossible to know how many went uncounted. With few official numbers, the Boroumand Foundation pulls testimony from political prisoners who live side by side with all types of female inmates behind bars. The political prisoners say that most of the other women in prison are there for murdering their husbands.
“The laws against women are such that women are put in a very vulnerable position, and sometimes they snap because there is no way out,” Boroumand says.
In March, Iran hanged 26-year-old Farzaneh Moradi, a child bride who admitted to killing her husband six years ago, but later tried to change her confession to explain that the murder had been carried out by a man and she was coerced into confessing to it.
Under Iranian law, after a guilty verdict is announced, the family of the victim decides the penalty. They have the right to demand either execution or “blood money,” a hefty ransom that spares the life of the accused. This sum, outlined in the penal code, is double for a male than it is for a female. In Ebrahimi’s case, her husband’s family has refused the offer of money for her life.
“The worst thing is the Iranian government has privatized justice—you don’t leave a decision of life and death to a grieving party,” Boroumand says. And such a bounty system has bred an industry. Earlier this year, a family demanded $76,000 for the death of their son. Over the past few years, activist groups have raised money to spare the lives of juvenile offenders who are unable to pay the fee.
Iran is a signatory to the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child (along with every other country in the world other than the U.S. and Somalia), but with a caveat that if it is “incompatible with the domestic laws and Islamic standards at any time or in any case, the Government of the Islamic Republic shall not abide by it.” The international law bars execution of juvenile offenders, but that hasn’t stopped the Islamic Republic from executing an untold number of boys and girls who were underage at the time of their crimes. Under Shari’a law, girls over 9 and boys over 15 are considered adults.
In 2013, Amnesty International counted at least 11 executed prisoners who were juveniles at the time of their crime. Since 1990, 51 juvenile executions have been reported, the highest rate in the world (the U.S. comes in second, but the practice was outlawed in 2005)—and also undoubtedly a gross underestimation. After China, Iran executes the most people in the world each year.
The last tally of children on death row, in 2011, estimated at least 143 child offenders were awaiting the gallows in Iran.
But last year, Iran tweaked its penal code to exclude execution of child offenders for certain crimes, like drug trafficking, and allow judges to evaluate whether the accused was old enough to understand their actions. If not, the judge could rule out the death penalty. Otherwise, it remains up to the victim’s family.
Ebrahimi’s lawyer requested she be retried under this new law, but the Supreme Court rejected his petition.
“In the [Iranian] judiciary, it’s retributive justice—an eye for an eye. Their position is this doesn’t involve us, it’s a completely private matter between two families,” says Faraz Sanei, the Iran researcher for Human Rights Watch (HRW). “No, that’s not true, Iran is signatory to international law…it should supersede national law. Any judge in the judiciary is duty bound to actually halt this execution.” HRW has issued a call to the courts to do just this.
The injustices putting girls like Ebrahimi on death row trace back to a heavy patriarchal cultural and legal bias that tilts the scales of treatment in all aspects of life. If a man murdered his adulterous wife as a crime of passion, he couldn’t be put to death, Sanei says. If a woman did the same, she could be. Likewise, a man is legally pardoned from killing his child or grandchild, but a woman is not. “These types of discriminatory legal provisions are littered throughout the Iranian legal system,” says Sanei.
For abused women like Ebrahimi, there are few places to turn. To get a divorce in Iran, you have to prove mistreatment, far beyond a few bruises. You have to prove, Boroumand says, that you didn’t deserve the abuse you suffered. Seeking a divorce is, she notes, basically “impossible.”
In Iran, girls are allowed to marry at age 13 (or earlier, if a judge allows) and child marriage is common throughout the country. “Most women married at a young age are among the poorest of Iranian society, least informed of their rights, and least able to defend themselves,” Boroumand says.
“The number of cases of women who resort to violence to be set free is an indication of the problem,” she says. “Most women live in miserable circumstances with their husband because they don’t want to resort to violence.”
The injustice doesn’t only hit minors. Currently awaiting execution is 26-year-old Reyhaneh Jabbari, who was 19 when she stabbed a man attempting to drug and rape her. He bled to death and she was sentenced to die. A campaign has succeeded in pushing her execution date back, but “that doesn’t mean they’re not going to kill her,” Boroumand says.
In Iran, execution rates have risen rapidly in the past decade. In 2005, there were less than 100. Last year, there were an estimated 700-750. Meanwhile, reports are getting hazier. In the Boroumand Foundation’s tally, official sources made up 95 percent of reported executions until 2008. Now, it’s split equally with unofficial sources.
For now, it’s unclear when Ebrahimi’s execution could get underway. She remains in Sepidar Prison. HRW’s Sanei says there seems to be little rhyme or reason to these decisions, but her judgment has already been sent to the Office of the Implementation of Sentences.
“These cases are many and they will continue to exist and people will continue to commit crimes because they're desperate and have no way out of difficult or abusive situations,” Boroumand says.
Amnesty has opened a petition for an appeal. It can be found here.