The chief of Iran's judiciary moved to curb the increasingly common spectacle of public executions on Wednesday by banning the practice, except in cases approved by him.
Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, a moderate conservative cleric tipped by some as a future potential supreme leader, said the death penalty should be carried out behind closed doors, and barred the publication of television footage or photographs of executions.
"Carrying out executions in public is only possible with the agreement of the judiciary chief and based on social necessities. The punishment of execution ... should not be carried out or publicized in a way that would create psychological tensions for the society, especially the young," a spokesman for the judiciary, Alireza Jamshidi, said.
While executions will likely continue behind closed doors, the order was interpreted as an effort to ensure that capital punishment takes place beyond the scrutiny of the outside world.
It follows a dramatic rise in public hangings, coinciding with a general increase in the use of the death penalty. About 300 executions were carried out last year, compared with less than 200 the previous year.
Sixty men convicted of a range of capital offenses, including murder, rape and drug trafficking have been hanged from cranes in public since last July, in scenes usually witnessed by large crowds.
Several executions have been screened on state television, including one on Monday of two men convicted of raping and murdering several women in the central city of Arak. Armed robbery, apostasy, drug trafficking and homosexuality are also punishable by death in the Islamic republic.
In another instance, two men convicted of assassinating a hardline judge, Hassan Moghaddas, were executed in front of the judiciary headquarters in central Tehran last July, within view of numerous office blocks and several foreign embassies.
Public executions have generally been applied to crimes that provoked public outrage, but critics say their increasing frequency has been intended to intimidate political opponents.
Human rights groups say Iran carries out more executions than any other country, apart from China. Its use of the death penalty has been criticized by the EU.
It is not the first time that Shahroudi has intervened to tone down Iran's draconian laws, but some of his previous rulings have been ignored. A man was stoned to death for adultery last July, just three weeks after Shahroudi had ordered his execution to be halted.
Last month, another man was hanged after being convicted of a rape allegedly committed when he was 13, despite the judiciary chief having ordered a stay of execution after his accusers withdrew the charges.
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