Iran put to death more than twice as many people in 2011 as it did the year before, Amnesty International said Monday in a new report. The rights group said that the rate of executions in public increased even more dramatically, in an apparent bid to suppress political dissent and promote a climate of fear among those who might defy harsh Iranian law.
"Casting a shadow over all those who fall foul of Iran's unjust justice system is the mounting toll of people sentenced to death and executed," said the 70-page report, released in the run-up to Iran's parliamentary elections on March 2.
"There were around four times as many public executions in 2011 than in 2010, and hundreds of people are believed to have been sentenced to death in the past year," it said. In Iran, prisoners are usually executed by hanging.
The report said the heightened pace of executions "may be a strategy to spread fear among the population and to deter protests. As the repression of dissenters widens, the risk of further death sentences and executions cannot be excluded."
Amnesty's report interprets the increase in public hangings, and an overall crackdown on dissent and freedom of the press _ particularly Internet-based communication _ as a harsh response to the public protests that erupted after President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's disputed 2009 re-election.
Calls left at the Iranian Mission to the United Nations seeking comment were not returned by Monday evening.
"Since the 2009 crackdown, the authorities have steadily cranked up repression in law and practice, and tightened their grip on the media," Amnesty said in the report.
The fear even reaches overseas. Earlier this month, the BBC said family members of employees of its Persian language service _ which is banned in Iran _ had been subjected to harassment, including one who was arrested in January and held in solitary confinement in Tehran's notorious Evin prison. Others had their passports confiscated.
"They have stopped public protests using articles of Iran's Penal Code that make demonstrations, public debate and the formation of groups and associations deemed a threat to 'national security' punishable by long prison sentences or even death," Amnesty said.
The report noted that Iran does not provide official statistics on their use of the death penalty, and said there is credible evidence that many people are put to death in secret.
Amnesty's Iran specialist Elise Auerbach told The Associated Press that there were 50 officially acknowledged public executions in 2011, compared to 14 such executions in 2010.
"In a couple of photographs of hangings, I've seen little boys and girls watching executions," Auerbach told the AP. "It's degrading and demeaning."
The total number of executions reported in Iranian state media, meanwhile, increased from 253 to 600. She said both figures were the minimum known, and stressed that "the true number was quite a bit higher."
Among those on death row in Iran is a former U.S. Marine interpreter arrested while on a trip to visit his Iranian grandmothers.
Arizona-born Amir Mirzaei Hekmati was sentenced to death in January as a CIA spy, the first time an American citizen has been condemned in Iran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, according to the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, a New York-based group.
Amnesty International's report, and the United Nations, also pointed to Iran's adoption of capital punishment for drug offenses beginning in 2011 as another factor behind the increase in executions.
"There was a noticeable increase in the application of the death penalty, including in public, since the beginning of 2011. The execution of political prisoners and juvenile offenders was also reported," U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in a report to the General Assembly in September.
About 80 percent of the executions involved drug offenses, Auerbach told the AP. Some death penalty cases involved rapists and murderers, but she said the expanding use of capital punishment "desensitizes the public" and paves the way for wider use of the death penalty in politically motivated cases, or on religious grounds such as apostasy or "enmity against God."
Last year, a report on the death penalty worldwide by Amnesty International found that China was the most prolific user of the death penalty, with executions believed to number in the thousands in 2010. Iran ranked second with 253. North Korea executed 60 people in 2010; Yemen executed at least 53; and the United States executed 46 prisoners that year.