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An Interview with Professor Mahmood Amiry-Moghaddam


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Publication (Outlet/Website): In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2018/12/22


Professor Mahmood Amiry-Moghaddam is a Professor at Universitetet i Oslo (UiO) and the Founder of ‎Iran Human Rights. He discusses: Iranian juvenile offenders are given the death penalty; religion as a political tool; countries telling women what they can and can’t wear; justifying the death penalty; advanced postsecondary training and neuroscientific research; problems in the brain; substantia nigra; and different cells having problems.

Keywords: Human Rights, Iran, Iran Human Rights, Mahmood Amiry-Moghaddam, neuroscience, professor.

An Interview with Professor Mahmood Amiry-Moghaddam: Professor, Universitetet i Oslo (UiO); Founder, ‎Iran Human Rights[1],[2]

*Please see the footnotes, bibliography, and citation style listing after the interview.*

1. Scott Douglas Jacobsen: With respect to some human rights issues in Iran, as you founded Iran Human Rights, there are particular issues to do with juvenile offenders who are given the death penalty. Why? How does this compare to the international context?

Professor Mahmood Amiry-Moghaddam: To answer the second question first, Iran has ratified several international conventions such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which clearly bans the death penalty for offenses committed under 18 years of age.

So, it is illegal. But they still do it. Why do they do it? I would say, in general, victims of the death penalty in Iran and, probably, in many other countries belong to the weakest groups of society.

I think that it is the same in Iran. These are normally children from marginalized groups because of poverty or other socioeconomic factors. Basically, they don’t have a voice. During the last 40 years, Iran has been among the countries issuing the death sentence for juveniles, and in the last 5 years Iran has been the only country implementing death sentences for juvenile offenders, in 2018, at least 6 juveniles have been executed by the Iranian authorities.

I think the first time this issue started getting serious attention was the after 2000, thanks to the internet and the emergence of new human rights groups. So, people started focusing on issues of juvenile execution.

I think, at the same time as we started, several other rights groups started focusing on juveniles on the death row. One was in Canada, Stop Child Executions – founded by Nazanin Afshin-Jam. This (the issue of juvenile executions) has been an important issue when it comes to Iran’s international partners or countries having a dialogue with Iran, e.g., the European Union.

The death penalty is not banned by international law but the execution of children is banned. It has been on the agenda. The Iranian authorities have been subjected to lots of pressure, international pressure. But they still keep doing it.

It is, I think, because they have different excuses for the use of the death penalty. I call it “excuses.” Because I think the death penalty is a political instrument, regardless of what the person sentenced to death has done, whether it is a normal crime or anything.

But the instrument is political. It is, in my view, what Iran uses to spread fear in the society. You remember when ISIS took over parts of Syria and Iraq? What most people remember were the scenes of the executions.

It is the most powerful instrument to spread terror and fear and keep the control of a country or of a people. Iranian authorities, since they don’t have popular support, depend on instruments like the death penalty.

Until recently, the majority of those executed were charged with drug offenses. There were years when we had 1 to 2 people executed each day for drug offenses, like 2015. Iran has executed several thousand in the last 7 or 8 years.

Again, because of increasing international pressure, they had to pass new legislation that restricts the use of the death penalty for drug offenses. When it comes to the death penalty, related to the juveniles – because they have allegedly committed murder, murder, according to Iranian law and what Iranian authorities say, is punishable by retribution in kind.

If the family of the murder victim wants retribution, which is the death penalty, then they do it. That way, they put away the execution responsibility on the shoulders of the plaintiffs. So, why does Iran continue juvenile executions?

Because they use the same excuse. Their excuse is that this is according to Islam or Sharia. We cannot change it. According to Sharia, a boy has a criminal responsibility when he is 15 and girl when she is 9.

They say, “We can’t change Sharia. That’s why we have to continue these punishments.” Because once they step back from Sharia, the next step would be to back off from many of the punishments, inhumane punishments, used in Iran which are based on Sharia.

It means they could be able to back off all those punishments. Most people are sentenced to death for murder charges. If they say that they can start using 18 years of age for criminal responsibility, it means that they can make, basically, any changes in their version of Sharia.

For them, it is a kind of red line. They have already been pushed by the international community to pass the legislation to limit the use of the death penalty for drug charges. They can’t execute political opponents as easily as they used to do in the 1980s because of the high political price. It would lead to international outrage. Now, the only thing left is for them to say, “We follow the religion.” Unfortunately, juvenile execution is also part of it. They are using the religion to keep on with the policy of the death penalty, which has nothing to do with the religion.

But it is a political tool. There are so many Muslim countries that do not practice the death penalty and as I mentioned, in the past few years Iran has been the only country in the world implementing the death penalty for juveniles.

On the other hand, the age limit to get a passport or a driving license in Iran is 18, like in other countries. The authorities do not regard a 15 years old boy mature enough to get a driver’s license. But when it comes to the death penalty the age of criminal responsibility becomes 15. So, the Iranian authorities can change the age of criminal responsibility to 18, but it requires much stronger and more long-lasting international pressure.

2. Jacobsen: So, you mentioned religion in its theocratic form used as a political tool, as a last-ditch political tool, for “justification” for the death penalty. However, this probably represents a disjunction between the general population and the religious leadership.

Is there a disjunction there? How much? Why?

Amiry-Moghaddam: Absolutely, first of all, ordinary people do not think the way the authorities do, even in murder cases. For example, for the past few years, we have been monitoring many of these retribution cases.

Since the law allows plaintiffs to either forgive or ask for retribution. There are a significant number of families who choose forgiveness. According to our statistics kept for a few years, the numbers of families who choose forgiveness over the death penalty via retribution is much higher.

That’s one thing. Iran probably has the biggest or the largest abolitionist movement in the Middle East, at least in the countries practicing the death penalty. One of the reasons is people see the authorities using the death penalty as a political tool.

The authorities’ way of using religion; the whole issue of political Islam arrived to Iran 40 years ago. Before that, it was only among a small group of the priests or the clergy. So, many people were not familiar with that.

Let’s say my grandfather or other people who were practicing Muslims, who were believers, they never shared the authorities’ idea of combining religion with politics the way they do it. So, I think that it is a paradox that Iran, which was probably the least religious country of the Middle East, has had an Islamic state over the last 40 years.

This is also one of the reasons why they have to use force to enforce the rules. For example, you have for the compulsory hijab. They have thousands of specific police forces to go around and make sure people are following the hijab rules.

You have probably seen the pictures. When ordinary people have the chance, they violate these rules. I would say Iranians do not share the authorities’ opinion. Not all, some have the same views. But I would say a larger group or, maybe, a majority do not share the authorities’ view on it, or on the tools used to continue their rule.

3. Jacobsen: As a caveat or an add-on to that [Laughing], we see some countries in the world with either an interest in telling women what they have to wear or [Laughing] what they can’t wear [Laughing].

Amiry-Moghaddam: Right, that’s the thing. It is when what you wear becomes the main issue. It is for all sides [Laughing]. The real issue is much different than what people wear. The clothing becomes a symbol of something.

People forget that it is just a symbol. For them, it becomes a real thing.

4. Jacobsen: Outside of juvenile cases and the death penalty as a political tool through religious excuses, fundamentalist religious excuses, what cases, either in history or at present, would the death penalty seem justifiable to you, as you know more about this than me?

Amiry-Moghaddam: To me, the death penalty is not justifiable in any cases. First of all, it is an inhumane punishment. I can come back to that. Another thing, there is no indication or there are no studies showing that it has a preemptive effect on crimes.

It’s not reversible. We have seen so many cases where many years later; they find the person was innocent. I think that the law is responsible for the values that we’re transferring to our children and society.

When the law says, “Violence is not good. Murder is not good,” they cannot have exceptions for themselves. Not talking about self-defense, the law says, “It (killing) is wrong,” but when they practice the death penalty that is what they are doing.

Basically, it means that there are exceptions to things that are our deepest values, “Killing is wrong; unless, I decide it.” It sends the wrong signal. There are so many negative sides to the death penalty. It outnumbers the possible benefits if any.

So, that’s why. For example, in Norway, where I live, you probably remember. There was this guy who first put a bomb in a government office. Then, he went to an island and started killing young people. He shot to death 69 people. Most of them were teenagers.

In some countries, he would probably have been executed. So, what happened to him? The Norwegian judicial system spent thousands of Norwegian Kroner to have a proper trial for him. He could choose his lawyer.

It took several months. He could appeal again. Finally, he was sentenced to a lifetime in prison. I think, let’s say, what this process did to the society was extremely important, also with regards to healing the wounds of those directly injured or those who lost loved ones, it says, “This man did not manage to change our values.”

The society showed it has much stronger values than what one man can do to them. Probably, there were some people who wanted to see him dead. A good thing about a society with rule of law is that the authorities do not put the responsibility of the decision on the shoulders of someone who is a victim of violence. They do not have to think about it.

They have their grief. That is more than enough responsibility. Imagine if, in addition to what they went through, they had also to decide if this person should live or die; eventually, it is for the benefit of anyone, including those directly affected by violence or crime.

I don’t say that we should not have punishments, but the punishments we have should not violate our deepest values, the respect for the right to life and that killing is wrong.

5. Jacobsen: To pivot into the other research work, you are highly trained. You have a Ph.D. and an M.D. You worked at Harvard Medical School. It comes from an interesting background as a refugee and then went to Norway, as a kid.

This leads to questions about interesting work and background, and the diverse set of education. Most people do not have that level of education. So, what is the main question you’re asking in the neuroscientific research?

Amiry-Moghaddam: Right now, we are working at what we call the neurodegenerative disorders such as Parkinson’s disease. Those diseases that affect the central nervous system. Mainly, as we get older, but these diseases can affect younger people as well.

We do not have any preemptive treatment. We don’t have any cure. The reason for that is we still do not know enough about how our brain works and what happens to the brain when these diseases occur.

If I simplify it, in Parkinson’s disease, a hallmark is a loss of a specific population of brain cells, neurons, at a specific part of the brain called substantia nigra. Nobody knows why exactly those cells start dying. By the time people are diagnosed, more than 60-70% of the cells are dead. We do not have a cure.

Despite several decades of research, we don’t know enough about it. The brain is fascinating enough as an organ. I find research on these diseases meaningful, because I know there are so many people who suffer because of those diseases.

That is what we are focusing on right now. But I think, as a scientist, we are very privileged because my job is to be curious and try to make new discoveries in one of our most complex organs. I really feel privileged for that.

6. Jacobsen: If you look at the substantia nigra, and if I remember right, it produces dopamine. So, in a way, this amounts to a dopamine depletion syndrome, Parkinson’s Disease. As with any evolved system, it will have flaws.

Anyone can look at the list of cognitive biases of the human mind to know how many are known just about the mind. We also know in other organs the failures which arise. We see this with diabetes. We see this with eyes. We see this with auditory disorders.

But people get mechanical devices to replace some of the function that is lost. Not to the same degree, but to some sufficient level for functionality in the world. I am thinking of people who take insulin, diabetics.

Others who need hearing aids. Others, such as you and I, who get glasses because our eyesight is bad in some way. Others that I remember or recall reading about, which were fascinating, and shoed a potential line, not necessarily solving but, of alleviating the problems for some people who have Parkinson’s.

Something akin to the pacemaker for the heart, a Parkinson’s pacemaker. Is this an area of newer research? Is it a hopeful area for research? Or is it, more or less, going off the rail? What is its status?

Amiry-Moghaddam: Yes, there are some, let’s say, more modern attempts to help people with Parkinson’s. First of all, let’s call it the dopamine pacemaker, we don’t have it. It wouldn’t stop or cure the disease.

Because, right now, the most efficient treatment, which has been helping many patients for many, many years is giving medication that increases the levels of released dopamine in the affected areas of the brain.

6. Jacobsen: That’s intriguing.

Amiry-Moghaddam: Yes, but it works as long as there are dopamine-producing neurons. When there are no more dopamine-producing neurons in the substantia nigra, this medication does not help so much. After that, people are trying. Things are still going on regarding the use of stem cells because the regeneration of new dopamine-generating neurons is something fascinating.

There are some trials. There is also deep brain stimulation. But in my field, it is much more basic. What I am trying to look at, why these specific neurons are vulnerable? Because there is something else interesting about Parkinson’s.

One finds a clear link with environmental toxins and Parkinson’s disease. That’s interesting. It means that these neurons are selectively vulnerable to toxins. What makes them vulnerable? Let’s say, my research goes much more back to basics. Why? What is the reason?

But, of course, we believe the knowledge about that would help us to find a cure or contribute to thinking differently about Parkinson’s disease. With all respects to all those who are at the same time trying to find a treatment, an efficient treatment with the current knowledge. I think both of them are necessary.

So, we haven’t been looking into how to increase the dopamine levels in the brain. We wonder why the dopaminergic neurons start dying. Specifically, the reasons for why they are vulnerable to particular toxins and why other neurons in the brain are not.

7. Jacobsen: When the substantia nigra begins to deteriorate, or to 60-70% fewer than the original number this may have cascade effects. If this is the case, what other systems deteriorate alongside it over time?

Amiry-Moghaddam: When the dopamine release falls below a certain level, the connections between the substantia nigra and other parts of the brain do not function as they should. These dopaminergic connections are among others important for modulation of our movements. That’s why some of the most apparent symptoms are related to our movements. The symptoms typically start at around 50-60 years of age, which is not old, but it gets worse with aging. There is also an increase in the prevalence of Parkinson’s disease as people get older.

Age is an important risk factor. As people get older, we see there is comorbidity between Parkinson’s disease and other kinds of dementia. That’s the reason. Parkinson’s, whether some people have several of the diseases at the same time. One of them starts first; we do not know much about it.

But there is comorbidity. At the very minimum, the higher the age, the more we see general dementia but also specific types like Alzheimer’s Disease.

There are also several common features among Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, even ALS.

You have an accumulation of specific kinds of protein, either inside or outside the cells, e.g. beta-amyloid in Alzheimer’s Disease. In Parkinson’s Disease, we have α-Synuclein. It gets too specialized for a general reader.

But other parts of the brain and other organs of the body are also affected. We still don’t know as much about that. As science develops or progresses, we find out more about how the disease affects other parts of the body, like the gut and other parts of the brain.

But the reason we haven’t been looking at it or focusing on it, previously, is that it is typical for us looking at the areas that give the stronger symptoms – or more characteristic symptoms. Because of the dopaminergic neuronal loss.

The Parkinson’s patients have a very specific way they walk. You have probably seen the way they walk. It is similar to other parts of the body. I would say that the more we dig into these diseases; we find that there is a lot more to find out and learn.

Another focus of my research. It is looking at the other cell types in the brain other than the neurons. It is called neurology or neuroscience because most of the focus or activity has been on the principal cells of the brain, the neurons. We want to see how the other cell types contribute to neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s disease.

8. Jacobsen: So, for instance, compared to the glial cells or something like this?

Amiry-Moghaddam: Yes, especially the astrocytes, the star-like cells.

Jacobsen: Yes.

Amiry-Moghaddam: According to some studies, they are the most abundant cell type in the brain. I think they play a more important role than previously anticipated. I think one of the reasons we lag behind when it comes to finding treatments for neurological disorders – compared to other parts of the body – is that the focus has been too neurocentric.

My main focus is on astrocytes or much of my research is on astrocytes.

9. Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Professor Amiry-Moghaddam.

Appendix I: Footnotes

[1] Professor, Universitetet i Oslo (UiO) Founder, ‎Iran Human Rights – سازمان حقوق بشر ایران‎.

[2] Individual Publication Date: December 22, 2018:; Full Issue Publication Date: January 1, 2019:


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