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Haunted Memories: The Islamic Republic’s Executions of Kurds in 1979

measure.”209 Article 6 provides that “a sentence of death may be imposed only for the most serious crimes in accordance with the law in force at the time of the commission of the crime.” The death penalty may only be carried out pursuant to a “final judgment rendered by a competent court.” 210 Executing persons under 18 years of age at the time of the offense is forbidden. A person sentenced to death also has the right to appeal or request a pardon.211

Moreover, under international law, every accused person has the right to a fair trial. Article 14 of the ICCPR guarantees that:

All persons shall be equal before the courts and tribunals. In the determination of any criminal charge against him, or of his rights and obligations in a suit at law, everyone shall be entitled to a fair and public hearing by a competent, independent and impartial tribunal established by law. 212

Article 14 also provides that the accused shall “have the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty,” “be informed promptly and in detail in a language which he understands of the nature and cause of the charge against him,” “have adequate time and facilities for the preparation of his defense and to communicate with counsel of his own choosing,” and be “tried without undue delay. 213

While countries are permitted to derogate from some of their international human rights obligations in a “public emergency which threatens the life of the nation,” and then, only to the extent strictly necessary under the circumstances,214 they never have a right to derogate from their duty to protect the lives of their citizens. In addition, the Human Rights Committee has firmly established that the “guarantees of fair trial may never be made subject to measures of derogation that would circumvent the protection of non-derogable rights.” 215

During the summer of 1979, Iran was in the midst of a transition from a constitutional monarchy to the Islamic Republic. While the Islamic Republic was formally declared in April 1979, the Constitution of the Islamic Republic was not adopted until December 3, 1979, and the laws during the interim were not always clear. However, even during this post-revolution period, Ayatollah Khomeini recognized the universal right of all human beings to not be executed for non-serious crimes or political beliefs. On May 14, 1979, he issued the following decree:

Mr. Prosecutor of the Islamic Revolutionary Court, other than the 2 cases of (1) someone who is proven to have killed a man and (2) someone who has ordered mass killings or has committed an act of torture that led to death, no court has the authority to issue an execution order and people should not be executed other than in the two cases mentioned. Transgressing this order is a crime and will be proof of manslaughter. 216

[209] U.N. Human Rights Comm., General Comment No. 6: Right to Life (Art. 6), ¶ 1, U.N. Doc. HRI/GEN/1/Rev.1 at 6 (Apr. 30, 1982), available at http://www.unhcr.org/refworld/docid/45388400a.html [hereinafter General Comment No. 6].
[210] ICCPR, supra note 208, art. 6(2).
[211] Id. art. 6(4).
[212] Id. art. 14(1).
[213] Id. art. 14(2), (3).
[214] State parties are permitted to derogate from some international obligations “in [a] time of public emergency which threatens the life of the nation and the existence of which is officially proclaimed.” U.N. Human Rights Comm., General Comment No. 29: States of Emergency (Art. 4), ¶ 3, U.N. Doc. CCPR/C/21/Rev.1/Add.11 at 2 (Aug. 31, 2001), available at http://www.unhchr.ch/tbs/doc.nsf/(Symbol)/71eba4be3974b4f7c1256ae200517361. Thus, even if the right to life were a derogable obligation, the insistence of Kurds and other ethnic minorities for some measure of secular autonomy did not justify summary trials and executions, as the authorities did not declare a public emergency that threatened the life of Iranians.
[215] U.N. Human Rights Comm., General Comment No. 32, Article 14: Right to Equality Before Courts and Tribunals and to Fair Trial, ¶ 6, U.N. Doc. CCPR/C/GC/32, at 2 (Aug. 23, 2007), available athttp://www.unhcr.org/refworld/type,GENERAL,HRC,,478b2b2f2,0.html.
[216] Bih Dastur-i Imam Khomeini: Mujazat-i Idam Mahdud Shud [By Order of Imam Khomeini: Limitations Were Placed on Execution Orders], ETTELAAT, [May 14, 1979], available at http://www.iranhrdc.org/english/human-rights-documents/3507-1979-newspapers.html.

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