On January 2, Saudi Arabia executed Shi’ite cleric Nimr al-Nimr, together with 46 other prisoners, mostly suspected Al-Qa’eda members, who were convicted of adopting radical “takfiri” ideology, joining terrorist organisations and carrying out “criminal plots.” Saudi authorities accused al-Nimr, a prominent critic of the Saudi authorities who called for political reforms yet advocated the use of non-violent protests, of incitement to violence. However human rights groups claim he was executed for his political opposition to the Saudi regime.
While executions are not a new policy or practice in Saudi Arabia, al-Nimr’s execution caused a regional and international backlash – and seems to be triggering a new escalation in the ongoing Cold War between the region’s Sunni states, led by Saudi Arabia, and Shi’ite Iran and its allies.
In the aftermath of the execution, protests were held in various locations such as Teheran, Qom and Mashhad, Iraq, Turkey, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Jammu and Kashmir (India). In Bahrain, hundreds of people protested against the Al-Saud family and the Sunni family ruling Bahrain, calling Nimr “our martyr”. Protests were organised as well in Western capitals and cities, such as London, Paris, Toronto, Washington and Chicago and Canberra.
During the protests, the Saudi embassy in Teheran was set on fire with Molotov cocktails that were thrown at it, and its interior was reportedly destroyed as protesters chanted “death to Al Saud.” As Elliott Abrams has noted this is very unlikely to have happened without government tacit support – and Iran has a long history of allowing mobs to torch embassies as part of its foreign policy.
The official Iranian reaction to the execution was also immediate. Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei used social media to compare the Saudi execution to IS beheadings. A picture of a Saudi executioner next to IS’ executioner Jihadi John with the caption “Any differences?” was posted on Khamanei’s website. The Iranian Foreign Ministry repeatedly condemned Nimr’s execution and summoned the Saudi Arabian charge d’affaires.
A diplomatic crisis quickly developed. In response to the Iranian statements and protests, Saudi Arabia initially summoned the Iranian ambassador in Riyadh over Iran’s “hostile” statements following Nimr’s execution, then it cut off diplomatic and commercial ties, as well as air traffic with Iran. Bahrain, Sudan, Djibouti and Somalia followed suit by also breaking off diplomatic ties with Iran, while the United Arab Emirates downgraded its relations and Kuwait, Qatar and Comoros recalled their envoys to Iran. The Arab League later condemned Iranian “meddling” in Saudi affairs.
Teheran, for its part, severed all ties with Saudi Arabia, and banned all imports. Iran accused Saudi Arabia of attacking its embassy in Sanaa, Yemen’s capital, with warplanes. Yet, residents and witnesses in Sanaa said that while an air strike had hit a nearby public square, and that some stones and shrapnel had landed in the embassy’s yard, there was no damage to the embassy building itself. Yemen is of course the site of a proxy conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran, where Saudi forces are leading a coalition fighting the Shi’ite, Iran-allied Houthi movement.
Human rights organisations have voiced concern recently regarding the expanding rate and scope of the use of capital punishment in Saudi Arabia, which reached a new record of at least 151 executions in 2015. They claim that the criminal penal code in Saudi Arabia is vague and leaves judges with a large degree of discretion regarding certain offences, including ones punishable by death. Therefore, both charges and court rulings are seen as arbitrary. Trials and legal processes are often criticised as unfair, interrogation techniques are alleged to include torture. Underage and juvenile alleged offenders, as well as foreigners, receive the same harsh punishments. Executions of non-violent protesters and activists calling for political reform convicted of alleged terrorism charges, alongside people convicted of non-violent criminal charges, are allegedly used by the Saudi authorities as a means to suppress dissent.
Yet while the expending execution trend in Saudi Arabia is indeed a disturbing phenomenon and reflects a gross violation of human rights, when this criticism is voiced by Iran, it reeks of hypocrisy. For the Iranian regime, prosecution and indeed persecution of the political opposition, including non-violent protestors and critics of the Ayatollahs’ regime, is routine, and is perpetrated on a much larger scale than in Saudi Arabia. It is ridiculous for the Iranian authorities to try to claim the moral high ground, considering their human rights track record is even worse and has actually worsened under supposedly “reformist” President Hassan Rouhani.
In his recent article in Commentary magazine (Iran’s Hypocrisy on Persecution, Jan. 4, 2016), Michael Rubin made this point when he noted how Iranian President Hassan Rouhani tweeted a condemnation the execution of Sheikh Nimr:
I hereby condemn #SheikhNimr’s execution & send my condolences to his family & Muslim world. This act violates human rights & Islamic values”
While unequivocally condemning the murder of Sheikh Nimr, Rubin argued that:
“if Rouhani was sincere, he might consider why it is that the regime for which he serves as president imprisons Baha’i men, women, and children simply because they are Baha’is. He might question […] why the regime over which he presides has targeted Iranian Christians, such as Saeed Abedini, an Iranian-American pastor. Then there’s the case of the missing Jews […]. And if human rights matter, he might ask why the rate of Iranian executions in 2015 was almost an order of magnitude greater than that of Saudi Arabia, which had approximately 150.”
That last point is especially worth focusing on.
Multiple human rights report from recent years reveal the scope of executions in Iran and raise serious concerns about its own human rights track record.
According to a US State Department Country Report on Iran’s human rights practices for 2014, “The [Iranian] government and its agents reportedly committed arbitrary or unlawful killings, including, most commonly, by execution after arrest and trial without due process.”
The report claims that the Iranian government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings, and executed 721 persons during the year, according to the NGO Iran Human Rights Documentation Center (IHRDC), while only 268 executions were officially announced. Amnesty International claims a total of 743 executions were carried out in 2014. Both of these figures correlate with the Human Rights Watch (HRW) World Report 2015 on Iran (for 2014-2015), according to which Iranian authorities executed at least 200 prisoners as of October 2014, based on media data. Opposition sources claim that approximately another 400 unannounced executions took place during that time period.
While the rate of executions in Iran was reportedly even higher in 2015-2016, even the low estimate is still higher than the number of executions in Saudi Arabia in 2015, the report said.
Meanwhile, Ahmed Shaheed, the UN’s special investigator on human rights in Iran, said in a report to the UN General Assembly on October 27 that executions in Iran have been rising at “an exponential rate” since 2005 and could top 1,000 for 2015. He also said Iran has the highest per capita execution rate in the world.
Capital punishment is legal in Iran for juveniles and child offenders over the age of nine for girls and 15 for boys. The HRW report noted that according to unofficial sources, at least eight under-age child offenders were executed during the time period covered by the report, while dozens of children reportedly remaining on death row.
The crimes punishable by death include many non-violent charges such as “insulting the Prophet,” “outrage against high-ranking officials,” “corruption on earth” (fisad fil-arz), and “insults against the memory of Imam Khomeini and against the supreme leader of the Islamic Republic,” apostasy, same-sex relations, adultery, and drug-related offenses. The HRW report mentions as an example the case of blogger Soheil Arabi who was sentenced to death for Facebook posts which were found to be “insulting the Prophet.”
Prisoners convicted of moharebeh (“enmity against God”) on account of their alleged ties to armed opposition groups are also reportedly being executed, despite penal code changes requiring that courts “review and vacate death sentences unless there is proof that the alleged perpetrator resorted to the use of arms.” Among those sentenced to death on moharebeh charges in 2014 were Iranian Arab activists, Hadi Rashedi and Hashem Shaabani, and Gholamreza Khosravi Savadjani, who was sentenced for his alleged ties to the outlawed Mojahedin-e Khalq opposition group. In addition, dozens of members of the Kurdish and Baluch minorities were on death row for terrorism charges, while human rights group maintain that the legal processes were ‘rife with violations’, which even led to UN appeals.
The US State Department report concluded that the Iranian authorities “frequently used moharebeh as a criminal charge against political dissidents and journalists, accusing them of struggling against the precepts of Islam and against the state that upholds those precepts.”
Unsurprisingly, this goes hand in hand with the imprisonment and detention of political and human rights activists and opposition figures. The US State Department noted that:
“According to the UN Special Rapporteur’s March report, authorities incarcerated at least 895 political prisoners and prisoners of conscience. Other human rights activists estimated there could be more than 1,000 prisoners of conscience, including those jailed for their religious beliefs.”
The report also warns that, according to opposition press, “the government also arrested, convicted, and executed persons on criminal charges, such as drug trafficking, when their actual offences were political.”
Political prisoners were also held in Iranian prisons for years ‘on baseless charges’, often in facilities intentionally located far away from their homes and families, in solitary confinement, without due process or access to legal representation, denying access of international humanitarian organizations or UN representatives. Such prisoners were also at greater risk of being tortured and abused in detention, the State Department report noted.
The US State Department also revealed that non-Shia minority groups, including Kurds, Arabs, Azeris, and Baluchis, are targeted by the government, and are more likely to be subjected to arbitrary arrest, prolonged detention, and physical abuse.
“These groups reported political and socioeconomic discrimination, particularly in their access to economic aid, business licenses, university admissions, permission to publish books, and housing and land rights.”
The non-Muslim religious minorities in Iran, such as the Baha’is, are also denied freedom of religion and discrimination against them continues. According to the HRW report, “at least 136 Baha’is were held in Iran’s prisons as of May 2014.” Christian converts from Islam [and] Persian-speaking Protestant and evangelical congregations are reportedly targeted by the Iranian security and intelligence forces and face charges such as “acting against the national security” and “propaganda against the state.”
Political participation, participation in civil life and public sector employment of non-Shia Muslim minorities is restricted in Iran, including that of Sunnis, who account for about 10% of the population. Sunnis are prevented from constructing their own mosques in Tehran or conducting separate Eid prayers.
And the human rights situation in Iran shows no sign of improvement, in fact quite the opposite. According to an Amnesty International (Iran’s ‘staggering’ execution spree: nearly 700 put to death in just over six months”, 23 July 2015), Iranian authorities executed 694 people between 1 January and 15 July 2015. Iranian authorities had officially acknowledged only 246 executions during this time period, but credible reports led Amnesty to conclude that further 448 executions were carried out.
Said Boumedouha, Deputy Director of Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Programme, commented at the time that the execution rate “paints a sinister picture of the machinery of the state carrying out premeditated, judicially-sanctioned killings on a mass scale.” Amnesty reveals that in 2015 executions in Iran did not even stop during Ramadan.
According to Amnesty, among those executed in 2015 are members of ethnic and religious minorities, Kurdish political prisoners and Sunni Muslims, convicted of “enmity against God” and “corruption on earth”, and the majority of those put to death were convicted on drug charges. Yet as the US State Department report suggests, narcotics charges are used by the Iranian authorities in some cases to cover up executions of those suspected of political crimes.
These staggering numbers bring us back to Rouhani’s hypocritical criticism of Saudi Arabia. While is it true that Saudi Arabia undoubtedly violates human rights with its capital punishment policies, questionable criminal legal standards and use of ‘law enforcement’ to persecute minorities and political dissidents, Iran is doing exactly the same thing on a much larger scale. In fact, Iran is the only country in the Middle East to carry out more executions than Saudi Arabia.
As Rubin concluded:
“let’s not believe that just because Saudi Arabia revealed its true character, that Iran has any ground for moral preening. It’s time to call out Iran’s hypocrisy and work non-stop to release its imprisoned religious figures before they suffer the same fate as Nimr.”