A moratorium has been placed on death sentences for people who were under 18 when they committed capital crimes in Iran.

The move, which has immediate effect, has been welcomed by gay groups and campaigners for human rights.

In December 2007 the UN passed a resolution calling for a moratorium on the death penalty for all crimes.

The vast majority of executions of juvenile offenders take place in Iran, where judges can impose the death penalty in capital cases if the defendant has attained “majority,” defined in Iranian law as 9 years old for girls and 15 years old for boys.

Iran is reported to have executed at least six juvenile offenders so far in 2008. More than 130 other juvenile offenders are currently sentenced to death.

In 2005 Iran sparked international outrage when it publicly executed two teenage boys.

Mahmoud Asgari and Ayaz Marhoni were hanged because according to the regime they were rapists, however gay campaigners insist the boys were killed under Sharia law for the crime of homosexuality.

At first it was claimed by Iranian officials that they were aged 18 and 19.

The best evidence is that both youths were aged 17 when they were executed and therefore minors, aged 15 or 16, at the time of their alleged crimes.

Iranian human rights campaigners estimate that 4,000 gay men have been executed since the Islamic revolution in 1979.

Under Sharia law gay sex illegal, with penalty of death for offenders as young as 14 years old.

“The ban on juvenile execution is an important human rights development for sexual minorities, particularly those perceived to be gay,” said the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission’s executive director Paula Ettelbrick.

“All too frequently, young Iranian men have been executed as juveniles after being charged with sodomy and other sexual crimes. This is a positive step toward improving human rights in Iran.”

OMCT, an international coalition of NGOs fighting against torture, summary executions, forced disappearances and other human rights abuses welcomed the announcement as a crucial step in the fight against the death penalty for juvenile offenders in Iran.

“OMCT remains concerned by the fact that the directive has no legal binding force and judges could ignore it until the prohibition of the death penalty against juveniles is expressly enshrined in the law by an act of Parliament,” the group said.

OMCT has called on the Iranian authorities to stop all pending executions of juvenile offenders, commute death sentences and start the legislative process leading to the adoption of a law by the Iranian Parliament stating the absolute prohibition of the death penalty for all persons that were under 18 at the time the crime was committed.