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Iran Executions Under Scrutiny

United Nations human rights chief Navi Pillay (file photo)

Iran is coming under increased scrutiny for the number of executions it carries out. Media reports from Iran on Wednesday reported the punishment for 10 drug traffickers. Human rights groups say Iran executes more people per capita than any other country in the world.

The United Nations human rights chief Navi Pillay said last month that there has recently been a dramatic increase in the number of executions carried out in Iran. She said the rate was three times higher than that of last year.

In the latest instances of capital punishment, Iran’s Arman newspaper reports seven people were hanged on Tuesday in Kerman Province in southern Iran. A judiciary website reported another three executions in Fars Province, also in the south. It didn’t say when the executions took place.

All ten were convicted on drug charges.

According to international law, the death penalty should be limited to the “most serious crimes,” which the U.N. says applies to crimes that are lethal or have extremely grave consequences.

Drewery Dyke is an Iran researcher at Britain-based Amnesty International.

“Therefore the application, as is the case in Iran, of the death penalty to forms of drug trafficking, drug related crimes, to extremely vaguely-worded charges such as ‘Moharebeh’ or enmity against God, for which we have seen both this year and last,” Dyke said. “These are really beyond what is provided for in international law.”

Amnesty says Iran is second only to China in the number of people it executes. In 2009, Amnesty says Iranian authorities put 388 people to death. Iranian media reported 179 hangings last year and 89 executions so far this year.

According to New York-based Human Rights Watch, Iran is one of only three countries that, since 2009, have put someone to death for a crime they committed before turning 18. The other two countries are Saudi Arabia and Sudan.

Iran says the death penalty is needed to maintain law and order.

Amnesty's Dyke says Iran also has historically used the death penalty in part as a political tool.

"The Iranian authorities have used the implementation of the death penalty – and mass use of the death penalty – to convey a message to would-be opponents of the regime to get in line,” Dyke added.

Iranian authorities have cracked down in recent weeks on political unrest that was revived by successful uprisings against authoritarian leaders in Tunisia and Egypt.

Iranians who oppose the leadership of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad have gathered under the Green Movement that sprang up after Ahmadinejad was re-elected in a disputed poll back in 2009.

Anthony Skinner is a Middle East expert with the London-based risk analysis group Maplecroft. He says Iran's administration may use the death penalty as a way to intimidate potential opponents.

"The government obviously wants to put a lid on the Green Movement, it wants to deter the Green Movement from gaining any kind of momentum from Libya and elsewhere in the broader (Middle East/North Africa) region,” said Skinner. “And it's trying to intimidate and trying to intercept communications and trying to use whatever mechanisms it has in its power in order to basically defuse the thrust of the Green Movement.

Some hard-line politicians in Iran have called for the trial and execution of two Green Movement leaders, Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi. Opposition sources say both are being held in a Tehran prison although Iranian authorities have denied this.

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