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Inside the Islamic World

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Iran Mulls the Death Penalty for Apostates—Perhaps with Worldwide Jurisdiction

March 17th 2008

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Joseph Grieboski

Life for so-called apostates in Iran has never been easy, but it could become literally impossible if Iran passes a new draft penal code. For the first time in its history, Iran is considering the death penalty for apostates. In the past, authorities have executed apostates. But punishment by death has never before been set down in law. 

The text of the draft penal code uses the word Hadd, which explicitly sets death as a fixed punishment that cannot be changed, reduced or annulled. The rest of the code is little better. By using ill-defined terms, other provisions also open the door to abuse Iran’s already beleaguered religious and ethnic minorities.

Article 225-1 states “Any Muslim who clearly announces that he/she has left Islam and declares blasphemy is an Apostate.” Article 225-2 adds that “Serious and earnest intention is the condition for certainty in apostasy.” So an accused person could claim that he made his statement reluctantly, or ignorantly, or while drunk, or through the slip of a tongue, and he would not be considered an apostate.

The penal code also identifies two types of apostates: innate (Fetri) and parental (Melli). An innate apostate has at least one parent who was a Muslim at conception, who declares himself a Muslim after maturity, then later leaves Islam. Maturity occurs at puberty, usually around 12 or 13. By contrast, both the parents of a parental apostate were non-Muslims at his conception. A parental apostate becomes a Muslim at maturity, then “later leaves Islam and returns to blasphemy.”

The code adds another condition for the parental apostate: anyone who has “at least one Muslim parent at the time of conception but after the age of maturity, without pretending to be a Muslim, chooses blasphemy is considered a Parental Apostate.”
 
To dispel any confusion over the required punishment for apostasy, the draft code says outright that “punishment for an Innate Apostate is death.” However, parental apostates do receive a slender reprieve: After sentencing, they have three days to recant their beliefs. If not, they will be executed according to their sentence.

Interestingly, the punishment for women is lighter than that for men. Punishment for a woman, whether innate or parental, is life imprisonment with hardship “exercised on her.” If a woman recants, she will be freed immediately. In a side note, the code’s authors said religious laws would determine “the condition of hardship.”

 The code would also further erode the rights of minorities such as Bahá’ís or Christians by labeling them apostates. “False prophets”—a term undefined in the code—are to be sentenced to death. Any Muslim who “invents a heresy” or a sect contrary to Islam is also an apostate. 

Also worrying for minorities is Article 133-3, which declares that anyone who uses a minor to commit a crime will be punished. As past experience shoes, parents of Bahá’í or Christian youth who share their teachings with children other than their own could find this article applies to them. Also, two or more people who get together to commit a felony constitute a group or band. This reference can be used for any organized action by a group of people, including any activity carried out by groups the government considers dangerous, such as Bahá’ís, Christians, or Azeris.

 The code’s authors go even further, extending its jurisdiction beyond Iran’s borders to those acting “against the government, the independence and the internal and external security of the country.” The law does not define the term “security.” This means that groups around the world that Iran’s regime consider dangerous could be liable for actions they take outside the country.

Iran already has an abysmal record when it comes to oppressing religious minorities and political dissidents. The current draft penal code only provides more scope to abuse the fundamental rights of Iranians. For anyone who dares question the regime’s religious ideology, there could soon be no room to argue—only death.

Joseph K. Grieboski is the President of the Institute on Religion and Public Policy.


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