April 29, 2007

Lone challenger to Iran's orthodoxy on the death penalty

By Gareth Smyth in Tehran
Financial Times
Published: April 27 2007 03:00 | Last updated: April 27 2007 03:00

It is hard to imagine a tougher cause in Iran than campaigning against the death penalty, which has strong popular support and which most religious authorities and politicians say is required by Islam.

Yet that is the task Emadeddine Baghi, a former journalist, has set himself in establishing a non-governmental organisation called the Association for the Right to Life. "I have to admit some people I asked to support us, including well-known reformers, refused point blank," he says.

A report published today from Amnesty International puts Iran behind only China in the world league of capital punishment with 177executions in 2006, up from 94 in 2005. There is no single reason why the total has increased, although observers talk broadly of a clampdown on crime.

Iran's favoured method is hanging from a crane, with death resulting from choking, which can take 10minutes. Mr Baghi says there are 42 people under 18 on death row and that more than a third of executions last year were for crimes other than murder, including 28 for adultery or homosexuality.

But Right to Life does claim successes - stopping eight executions in two years, with one person freed, three facing life imprisonment and four awaitingnews. Mr Baghi is hopeful over another 30 cases.

His arguments against the death penalty are based on a grounding in Islamic law gained from religious studies in Tehran and Qom that Mr Baghi gave up at 29 when he opted not to become a cleric.

"The Koran is clear," he says, citing verse 178 of the Baqarah sura. "It talks of punishment as a way to guarantee social stability. I argue that a life sentence can have a better effect."

Mr Baghi's motivation in setting up an earlier NGO, Defending the Rights of Prisoners, lay in a belief in independent organisations and in a commitment to human rights. "All humans have rights," he insists, "including prisoners and murderers."

Like many reformist intellectuals, Mr Baghi has his own prison story. Sent to Evin jail in 1999 when the judiciary closed the Khordad newspaper where he worked, he realised "ordinary" prisoners were worse treated than political ones.

Mr Baghi pressed for the enforcement of prison rules, famously organising fellow inmates to extract and weigh the meat in a large pot of stew - to find it 2.5kg rather than the then 7kg stipulated for 140 prisoners.

Prison gave Mr Baghi time to think. "I'd always thought our problems were caused by authoritarian government, and that it should be overthrown. You might expect experience of prison to strengthen this belief but, instead, I realised the real problem was the lack of a strong civil society."

Defending the Rights of Prisoners, which has two waged staff, survives on membership fees from 65 people, donations and a decision by Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, a cleric once designated as successor to Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini as supreme leader, that it could accept religious dues.

Mr Baghi admits the NGO faces an uphill task. "We face the general lack of an effective civil society coupled with the particular disregard of the rights of prisoners."

Another difficulty, he says, flows from US "intervention" in Iranian affairs, which has fostered suspicion of independent groups.

*Iran yesterday heralded what it said was new thinking in the dispute over its nuclear programme amid western scepticism that any breakthrough was imminent, write Vincent Boland in Ankara and Daniel Dombey in Oslo.

The comments came after a meeting in Ankara between Javier Solana, the European Union's foreign policy chief, and Ali Larijani, Iran's chief nuclear negotiator.

Details of the substance of the talks were sketchy. But Mr Larijani, in an interview afterwards with a Turkish television station, said "new ideas" had emerged that would allow further talks to proceed soon.

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