Iran blasphemy executions: two men hanged - blasphemy and apostasy punishments explained

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The deaths take the total number of prisoners executed in Iran to at least 203 since the start of the year

Iran has executed two men convicted of blasphemy, according to authorities. The news follows a recent surge in the number of executions across the Islamic Republic amid unrest.

The country is listed as one of the world's worst offenders for executing prisoners, with the recent deaths bringing the total to 203 since the start of the year. Yet executions for blasphemy remain rare, as often much more lenient sentences are given for the crime.

This is what you need to know.

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What happened?

Yousef Mehrad and Sadrollah Fazeli Zare were hanged at Arak prison in central Iran on Monday (8 May) having first been arrested in May 2020. They were accused of being involved in Critique of Superstition and Religion, a channel on a telegram message app, and they spent months in solitary confinement where they could not communicate with the outside world.

The Mizan news agency of Iran's judiciary claims the two men insulted the prophet Muhammad and promoted atheism. It also accused them of burning a copy of the Qur'an.

Amnesty issued a statement on the executions, writing: "This is a shocking new low for Iran's authorities and only furthers Iran's pariah status They were hanged solely for social media posts in a grotesque assault on the rights to life and freedom of religion."

State Department spokesman Vedant Patel told reporters in Washington that the executions are a "grave reminder of the Iranian regime's penchant for abusing and violating the human rights of Iranian people. Blasphemy laws remain an affront to human rights worldwide, including in Iran."

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What is blasphemy?

Blasphemy is generally defined as the act or offence of speaking sacrilegiously or disrespectfully about God or sacred things. Merriam-Webster explains it as "the act of insulting or showing contempt or lack of reverence for God; and/or the act of claiming the attributes of a deity."

What are the laws on blasphemy and apostasy in Iran and how is it punished?

In 2022, Iran executed at least 582 people, up from 333 in 2021 - Credit: GettyIn 2022, Iran executed at least 582 people, up from 333 in 2021 - Credit: Getty
In 2022, Iran executed at least 582 people, up from 333 in 2021 - Credit: Getty | AFP via Getty Images

Iran is one of the 71 countries around the world that criminalise blasphemy. Across these countries, of which 32 are Muslim, punishments for the crime do vary.

The consequence of the crime in Iran, as well as the likes of Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Afghanistan, is death or imprisonment. If you are found guilty of blasphemy, you will also be convicted of apostasy as a result.

Apostasy is defined as the abandonment or renunciation of a religious or political belief or principle. Iranian views also vary depending on the different schools, below is a breakdown:

  • Ḥanafī - Three days of imprisonment before the execution but this is not mandatory. Not obligatory to ask the apostate to repent. Males are to be killed while females are held in solitary confinement and beaten every three days until they repent and return to Islam.
  • Mālikī - Up to 10 days given to abandon the opinion or belief, after which the apostates must be killed. Both male and females executed. Must have previous history of being a 'good Muslim'.
  • Shāfiʿī - Three days given to allow them to return to Islam. Failing this, death penalty is the recommended form of punishment for males and females.
  • Ḥanbalī - Waiting period for repent is not necessary but may be granted. Death penalty is the form of punishment for male and female apostates.
  • Jaʿfari or Imāmī - Male apostates must be executed, while females to be held in solitary confinement until they repent and return to Islam. Repentance is not guaranteed to save someone from execution unless they are 'natural apostates' which are people who are not born Muslim but convert to Islam before committing apostasy.

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