Dr Charles Tannock

Member of the European Parliament for London

The brutal application of the death penalty in Iran

Conservative Home - September 5th 2008

Yesterday in the European Parliament I spoke in the monthly debates on human rights that take place at the end of each plenary session (which would have taken place in Strasbourg had the building's roof not caved in). These debates, known as 'urgencies', highlight issues of major concern around the world and cover a wide spectrum: recent topics have included Japanese comfort women, the recent coup in Mauritania and the bizarre murders of albino people in Tanzania for their body parts to be used to make potions.

One country, however, features disproportionately in these monthly debates. I have lost count of the number of times we have denounced Iran's brutal theocratic regime and its appalling human rights record. And of the many issues that MEPs have sought to highlight, the abritrary and disproportionate application of judicial execution under sharia law is the one that concerns us the most in these human rights debates.

I should say at this stage that I do not support the general thrust of the EU's approach to the death penalty, which is universal abolition. Execution should be a matter of sovereign governments to decide and I can accept that there are times when it may be an appropriate way to do justice for the most heinous crimes. However, in democratic countries that still execute criminals (the main ones being the US, India and Japan) there are generally accepted civilised and humane standards for the administration of capital punishment. Moreover, the death penalty is generally only carried out on adults proven guilty beyond all doubt of aggravated murder and following lengthy due process and appeals.

Iran, on the other hand, takes a very liberal approach to what constitutes a capital crime. The execution of juveniles is commonplace, and indeed formed the basis of yesterday's debate and resolution. It's also common for juveniles to be convicted of crimes and sent to prison in the sure knowledge that they will be executed on their eighteenth birthday. The method of execution most frequently employed - slow hanging, often from a crane - is especially barbaric. Among sovereign states only the People's Reublic of China, which has a population seventeen times that of Iran, executes more people every year. Iran blatantly disregards the fact that it is a signatory to UN conventions on the rights of the child prohibiting executions of juveniles.

People are put to death in Iran for what countries like Britain would consider to be trivial offences, or not even offences at all, such as consensual homosexual sex and adultery. Such cases are known in Iran as 'crimes of sexual chastity'. I remember vividly a similar debate a few years ago that highlighted the case of a mentally ill teenage girl, Ateqeh Rajabi, executed for having sex outside marriage. Apostasy also carries a mandatory death sentence.

The regime in Tehran seems to gain a perverse pleasure in shocking the outside world and inviting its opprobrium. Sadly the barbarity of Iran's application of the death penalty no longer shocks me but still disgusts me, and despite the fact that our resolution will be forwarded to President Ahmedinejad, I doubt that he will lose any sleep over the matter.