Local activist attacks child executions in Iran

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      Delara Darabi, a young Iranian woman whose paintings were exhibited in Tehran last year, may not have the time to polish her art. According to an account by Amnesty International, the girl was only 17 when she falsely confessed to a murder in order to protect her boyfriend, an admission she later retracted. She was sentenced to death by a court in the northern city of Rasht.

      In January, Darabi attempted suicide inside her jail cell by slashing her wrists, Amnesty International reported in a worldwide alert. It noted that the Iranian Supreme Court confirmed her death sentence in February. She could be executed at any time.

      Darabi is one of at least two dozen child offenders–those under 18 at the time of the crime–who are languishing on Iran's death row. There could be more, according to Vancouver human-rights activist Nazanin Afshin-Jam, who recently launched a campaign to stop child executions in Iran.

      "Under shari'a law, which is the legal system in Iran, a girl is considered a woman at age nine and a boy is considered a man at age 15," Afshin-Jam told the Georgia Straight. "What we've noticed is if there is a child offender, they wait till these children turn 18 and then they execute them."

      Afshin-Jam, a former Miss World Canada and runner-up to Miss World 2003, wants Iran to abide by its obligations to the two international core treaties banning child executions: the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Covenant on the Rights of the Child. Her Web site (www.stopchildexecutions.com/) has identified 27 juvenile offenders, several of whom are known only by their first names, who are facing death.

      "I'm against the death penalty altogether, and it just even makes it worse to execute someone who may be of an age where they don't fully understand their action," she said. "If you make a mistake, you have to learn your mistake, but I don't believe execution is the answer. I don't think we could play God in some way and decide the life of someone else."

      Afshin-Jam said that Iran's noncompliance with the two treaties could also serve as a gauge of its adherence to other international agreements, like the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. On March 24, the UN Security Council voted unanimously to impose tougher economic sanctions on Tehran for its refusal to stop its uranium-enrichment program. The U.S. and its allies accused Iran of attempting to produce fissile material for nuclear weapons, but the Islamic republic has staunchly maintained that it only wants fuel for nuclear energy.

      "If they're not abiding by these treaties that they have signed on this issue, which is so important–like, everyone would agree not to execute minors as part of international human-rights law–it just makes the international community question how reliable their word is on a larger security issue, like the nuclear question," Afshin-Jam said.

      The thought of writing off the life of a young person also repulses North Vancouver's Ramin Mahhouri, an Iranian í‰migrí‰ who has been in Canada for the past 25 years. Mahhouri, the editor of the Farsi-language Paivand newspaper, told the Straight: "Iran doesn't seem to be abiding by any of its international treaties."

      From 1990 to 2003, Iran was second only to the U.S. in vying for the dubious distinction of putting the highest number of child offenders to death, according to Amnesty International. On March 1, 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed this practice.

      With 15 more executions in the years 2004 to 2006, Iran's record of 22 killings now exceeds the U.S.'s total of 19. Together, these two countries accounted for at least 77 percent of the overall 53 cases reported by Amnesty International since 1990. The rest were recorded in China, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Yemen.

      Tamineh Sadeghi, secretary of the Vancouver branch of the International Federation of Iranian Refugees, told the Straight that a regime that doesn't accord equal rights to women shouldn't be expected to respect the rights of children. "The worth of a woman in Iran is only half that of a man," Sadeghi said. "A child's life is much less."

      Afshin-Jam started the campaign against child executions on March 7, exactly two years to the day after Nazanin Fatehi, then 17, fought off three men who tried to rape her and her 15-year-old niece.

      Fatehi stabbed and killed one of the men, and for her act of self-defence she was sentenced to death by an Iranian court. Afshin-Jam gathered more than 350,000 signatures in a petition to save the girl. After a retrial, Fatehi was exonerated and she rejoined her family last January.

      When asked what drives her, the former beauty queen refers back to 1979, the year of the Islamic revolution in Iran.

      "It's an extension," she said about how the tumultuous events that led to the arrest and torture of her father by the new regime shaped her human-rights advocacy, even though she was only one year old when she fled Iran with her family. "Since the revolution happened in 1979, human rights have gone downhill," Afshin-Jam said. "Before that time, it wasn't perfect as well."

      As a recording artist, she speaks of her childhood and those of her generation in "Someday (The Revolution Song)", the first track of her debut CD set to be released by Bodog Music on April 24.