Iran has been accused of misleading the international community by claiming to have abandoned the death penalty for juvenile offenders and execution by stoning for those convicted of adultery.
Local news agencies reported at the weekend that Iran's guardian council, a body of clerics and lawyers in charge of approving parliamentary activities, had approved a new amendment to the country's penal code which had been passed into law by the MPs.
The new penal code – which will come into effect after being signed by the president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – is believed to have been adopted in response to international criticism of Iran's violations of human rights.
But experts who have studied the new code questioned claims that the country had fully abolished the death penalty for those convicted under the age of 18 or abandoned its use of stoning. They also believe the amendments have complicated some other parts of the law, especially the punishment of homosexuality.
Sodomy for men was punishable by death for all individuals involved in consensual sexual intercourse, but under the new amendments the person who played an active role will be flogged 100 times if the sex was consensual and he was not married, but the one who played a passive role will still be put to death regardless of his marriage status.
Under the new code, the death sentence has been removed for juveniles only in crimes whose punishment can be administered at the discretion of the judge (such as drug offences). Under the same law, however, a death sentence may still be applied for a juvenile if he or she has committed crimes that are considered to be "claims of God" and therefore have mandatory sentences (such as sodomy, rape, theft, fornication, apostasy and consumption of alcohol for the third time).
A decision on whether such a death sentence for a juvenile can be issued relies on the "judge's knowledge" – a loophole that allows for subjective judicial rulings where no conclusive evidence is present.
Amnesty International's Iran researcher Drewery Dyke said: "Let's not be fooled by this seeming suggestion of improvements to Iran's penal code. The penal code still allows for stoning to be carried out. Child offenders are still at risk of being placed on death row, and men and women can still be convicted on grounds of consensual extramarital and same-sex relations."
"These new amends to Iran's penal code have done nothing to improve the country's human rights record.
Shadi Sadr, a prominent Iranian human rights lawyer exiled in London, said: "The amendments are flawed but it shows international pressure on Iran still works." Sadr's colleague, Nasrin Sotoudeh, who highlighted juvenile executions in the Islamic republic, remains in jail in the country.
Confusion over Iran's definition of a juvenile has also added to the complexity of the issue, said Raha Bahreini, a fellow at Amnesty International Canada. The country does not provide a clear distinction between the age of majority – when minors cease to legally be considered children – and the minimum age of criminal responsibility, which is 15 for boys and nine for girls under Iranian law.
"Iran's penal system has often taken the minimum age of criminal responsibility for the age of majority," she said, "thus allowing individuals under the age of 18 to be treated and sentenced as adults as soon they reach the minimum age of criminal responsibility."
According to the old penal code, people convicted of having an "illicit relationship outside marriage" would be sentenced to death by stoning. The new code, however, still considers "adultery while married" as a crime but has not designated any punishment for it, thus referring the judge to the fatwa of a reliable cleric (the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in this case) for a decision. Khamenei has not yet issued a fatwa for such a crime, but all other clerics in the country order stoning as its punishment. It would be highly unlikely that Khamenei would contradict his fellow clerics.
"It's simply a trick," said Sadr. "They've removed death by stoning from the penal code but in reality it remains in place."
The new penal code does not mention stoning as punishment for any crime but it does refer to it twice in a section about the criminal procedure rules and conditions under which such a punishment can be administered.
"The fact that stoning has been mentioned in the criminal procedures of administrating the punishment – it shows they are truly expecting the method to be used in future," said Sadr, adding there were other discrepancies in the code.
In recent years, Iran has been criticised by human rights organisations for its escalating use of the capital punishment. Recently, an international outcry over the case of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, a 44-year-old mother of two, highlighted the plight of at least a dozen Iranians behind bars who are awaiting death by stoning.
Photo: Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, whose case provoked outcry over Iran's use of execution by stoning. Photograph: Press TV/EPA