Dozens of people who were arrested in Iran for crimes committed before they turned 18 remain at risk of the death penalty despite recent reforms, with many having already spent years on death row, according to a report by Amnesty International.
The human rights group's 110-page report, released on Tuesday, said that Iran executed at least 73 juvenile offenders between 2005 and 2015, including at least four last year.
Iran is one of the world's largest users of the death penalty, ranking second behind China in 2014, according to the most recent figures from Amnesty.
Amnesty's researchers were able to identify the names and locations of 49 juvenile offenders who face the death penalty, though the group notes that actual numbers could be higher. A 2014 UN report put the number of juvenile offenders at risk of execution at more than 160.
Most of the 73 juvenile offenders Amnesty identified who were put to death over the past decade were convicted of murder. Others were executed for crimes such as rape, drug-related crimes and national security offences such as "enmity against God".
Reforms 'not enough'
"Iran is a country of law and has an independent judiciary - unlike the neighbouring Arab countries for example, - which means that the Iranian legal system takes due diligence in its sentencing guidelines," Hassan Hanizadeh, the editor-in-chief of the Meher News Agency in Tehran, told Al Jazeera. "Those executed were major drug dealers who were using Iran as a transit country to smuggle drugs into Europe and other countries."
"As far as Amnesty's report and other Western organisations that accuse Iran of illegally executing people, one must question the motives of these organisations before taking their reports as credible information," Hanizadeh said. "These international groups deal with these issues from a political perspective and often try to smear Iran's reputation out of political motives and political agendas."
Amnesty noted that reforms introduced in 2013 give judges more discretion to take into account juvenile offenders' mental maturity and the potential to impose less harsh punishments. The Supreme Court has since said that juvenile offenders facing execution could have their cases retried.
Additional reforms introduced last year require that cases involving juveniles must be heard in special juvenile courts.
But Amnesty urged Iran to do more, stating that "despite some juvenile justice reforms... [the country is still] maintaining laws that permit girls as young as nine and boys as young as 15 [the age the government considers them to have reached puberty] to be sentenced to death".
The report highlighted more troubling aspects of Iran's judicial system, including the juveniles' lack of access to legal counsel, lack of protection against coerced statements and torture.
Although Iran also revoked a criminal article that previously violated convicted death row inmates the right to appeal, Amnesty said that "it is not clear whether this amendment can be applied retroactively to people whose death sentences have already been approved".
In late October, the United Nations' special investigator on the human rights situation in Iran, Ahmed Shaheed, warned that executions in Iran have risen at an "exponential rate" since 2005 and could top 1,000 in 2015.
He said Iran put more people to death per capita than any other country, adding that the majority of executions did not conform to international laws banning the death penalty for juveniles and non-violent offenders.
The head of Iran's Human Rights Council, Mohammad Javad Larijani, subsequently dismissed the UN report as "a collection of baseless accusations".
Source: Al Jazeera and agencies