rights activists say. Reuters
TEHRAN - Instead of celebrating his 18th birthday at home with friends and family this month, Ali Torabi will be wondering if it will be his last.
Torabi is one of at least 12 juvenile offenders sentenced to death by Iran's hardline courts and held in detention centres until they are deemed old enough to be executed without attracting international criticism, human rights activists say.
Although it is a signatory of U.N. conventions which forbid the execution of young offenders, Iran continues to sentence them to death and carry out the verdict when they reach 18.
"Ali is my only son, my life. I want to see him grow old. He is too young to die," sobbed his father, Mohammad Torabi.
A human rights lawyer said Iran has executed some under-age offenders in the past. A 1998 U.N. report said four juveniles aged between 16 and 17, were executed in Iran from 1990 to 1992.
"I can not reveal the number but there were boys aged under 18 who were executed inside prison," said the lawyer, who asked not to be named. "But the last one took place almost five years ago. It has stopped due to heightened international pressure."
Nevertheless death sentences have continued to be imposed on young offenders, convicted of murder, rape or drug smuggling, in direct contravention of the international Treaty on Civil and Political Rights, the lawyer said.
The judiciary recently announced plans to outlaw the death penalty for offenders of less than 18 years. Lawyers say the planned reform does not go far enough as it still gives the judge discretionary powers to over rule it if he deems a young offender to have been "mature" at the time of the crime.
"The bill should clearly ban juvenile execution. A judge should not be authorised to choose," said Shirin Ebadi, winner of the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize for her human rights work in Iran. "The bill needs changes."
Ebadi said changing the law was difficult because of Islamic Sharia law which is the most important influence on Iran's legal system. Under Sharia adulthood in men is thought to start at the age of 15 and in girls at nine.
A planned rally to denounce juvenile death sentences was banned by the Interior Ministry last month, said Ebadi, who is representing another young offender sentenced to death.
Iran's judiciary has shown some flexibility on such issues before. Under pressure from the European Union, Tehran has stopped sentencing women adulterers to death by stoning and this year issued a new directive banning the use of torture to obtain confessions.
The EU parliament condemned Iran in October for passing death sentences on child offenders. The parliament hoped that judicial reform would bring an end to such "inhumane" practice.
In November, Canada voiced its concern over the violation of human rights in Iran by tabling a resolution, backed by 33 countries, at the United Nations General Assembly.
"We believe Iran needs to hear from the global community that change is necessary," the resolution said.
Iran's reformist government has repeatedly voiced concern over the impact such issues have on the Islamic state.
"Such sentences directly affect our international image. It should be stopped," said a government official who asked not to be named.
It is not clear whether the planned legal reform of juvenile sentences will come in time to save Ali Torabi, whose sentence was confirmed by the Supreme Court in October.
Ali was convicted and sentenced to death after he killed a classmate during a school fight when he was 15. Police said he carried out the killing intentionally.
His father said Ali, a keen sportsman and good student, lacked the maturity to stand up for himself under police questioning.
"He was scared to death and he said things to ease the pressure," Mohammad Torabi said. "He is just a boy who is even afraid of the dark."
Ali's family has pleaded in vain with the parents of the victim numerous times over the last three years to show clemency and drop their complaint.
"They are angry. I understand their sorrow and pain. There is no love like a parent's love," Torabi said.
He still hopes for a last-minute reprieve.
"Ali has been punished enough by imagining his execution day for the past three years."