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In recent years, Iran has been ranked as having the second highest number of death sentences in the world per year after China. While the Chinese refuse to release official execution data, by comparing the populations of the two countries, it could be said that Iran has the highest rate of executions per capita. The majority of those executed in recent years in Iran were convicted of drug-related offences.
Reports by Iran Human Rights (IHR) indicate that more than 2,500 prisoners charged with drug-related offences were executed in the past five years alone, which constitute about 70% of the total number of executions during this period.
Over the past two years, negotiations have begun at the highest levels of the judiciary, legislative and executive bodies about the abolition of the death penalty for drug-related offences and reforming the anti-narcotic laws, creating some hope for reducing the penalties received by the convicts. A bill has also been submitted to the Parliament in this regard, but there seems to be a long way to go before any legislation is implemented to rectify the situation.
Reports prepared in recent years by IHR and other human rights organisations indicate that unfair trials are the biggest hurdle in the way of justice for this group of prisoners in Iran. In many cases, those accused of drug-related offences had no access to a lawyer throughout their detention and trial periods, or only met their court-appointed lawyer during the trial sessions. Moreover, some of the defendants who were able to appoint a lawyer, told IHR that their lawyers were not allowed to defend them during the trial. Overall, lawyers often cannot make any significant impact in such cases. Therefore, a significant reduction in the number of drug-related executions is unimaginable without fundamental reforms to the trial process for these prisoners.
According to current Iranian laws, the manufacturing, distributing, selling or trafficking of more than 5 kilograms of cannabis, marijuana, opium poppy, tar opium or burned opium in or out of the country is punishable by the death penalty. Also, anyone charged with smuggling more than 30 grams of heroin, morphine, cocaine, meth, chemical derivatives of morphine and cocaine or other chemical extracts of cannabis and cannabis oil shall be sentenced to death by execution. Prior to 2011, possessing, purchasing and selling some other drugs such as chemical extracts of cannabis and industrial drugs were not subject to the death penalty, but since 2011 these were also included in the law after an amendment was passed by the Expediency Council. This amendment declared that anyone who possesses, purchases or sells more than 30 grams of cannabis or industrial drugs shall receive a similar punishment as for all varieties of heroin. This decision led to many new death sentences and a sudden rise in the number of annual executions.
Until November 2015, persons convicted of drug-related offences, even those facing the death penalty, did not have a right to appeal similar to other judicial cases, and their verdicts became executable immediately after approval by the Attorney General or the Head of the Judiciary. In November 2015, a unanimous order was passed on ‘the right to appeal to the Supreme Court against death penalties for defendants in drug-related offences,’ after which only the drug offenders who had received a death penalty obtained the right to request a retrial similar to other defendants in Iran’s judicial system. As many of these prisoners have apparently been sentenced to death through unfair trials, there is hope that a retrial for those facing a death penalty could change the fate of many of these prisoners. However, IHR has reported a number of cases in recent months where the death sentences of those convicted prior to November 2015 were executed without a retrial.
Executions for drug-related charges in Iran
Drug-related cases are dealt with in the Islamic Revolutionary Courts. The revolutionary courts were created on February 24, 1979, shortly after the overthrow of Iran’s monarchy and through the direct order of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini with the aim of trying the previous government’s officials. These courts maintain lower transparency and human right standards than other public courts in Iran. Records of these court proceedings show that, even in cases with more than one defendant, the defendants are convicted through very short trials, often concluded in only one session. In such cases, most of the defendants are presented by a court-appointed lawyer due to lack of financial resources. A number of these prisoners told IHR that they had not even met their public defender before the trial. In such cases where appointed lawyers have been present, the judges have not allowed the lawyers to defend their clients effectively and have only allowed a written defence to be submitted.
Mehrangiz Kar, a prominent Iranian lawyer, journalist and human rights activist currently living in the United States, said in an interview with the ‘No to Execution’ TV programme that in one instance an official from a security agency had asked her for a few packs of signed, blank power of attorney papers to be used for some defendants. This person did not provide any explanation regarding the charges of these individuals and only told her that she would never be able to meet her clients.
Short trials and ineffective lawyers
Another important issue is the systematic violation of the rights of the individuals arrested for drug-related offences as well as their right to a fair trial. Many of the prisoners facing the death penalty have told IHR that while they were detained at the ‘Headquarters for Combating Drugs’ (Soroosh 111-formerly known as Kahrizak), they were tortured in various ways and beaten with wooden sticks, hoses and cables, hung by their hands from the ceiling for hours while being beaten, or spent weeks in solitary confinement with handcuffs and shackles. All of these practices violate the basic rights of the detainees in order to put pressure on them and force them to confess; because the Islamic justice system, adopted by Iran’s legal system, relies mainly on confession by the accused and without a guilty plea, it is very difficult to convict the accused on the basis of available evidence.
The total number of executions in Iran in 2015 was 969 cases, as recorded by the research and statistics division of IHR, of which drug-related offences accounted for 638 (66 percent). Out of these numbers, 596 cases (61 percent) were not announced through official channels. Also 57 cases of public executions were recorded in the same year, of which 5 percent were in relation to drug-related offences.
Obviously, these are only the statistics recorded by the human rights organisations collected despite the opaqueness in Iran’s political and media environment, the constant suppression of human rights activists, undeclared or secretly carried out executions and the severe restrictions imposed on communication with prisoners. It is likely that the actual number of executions, particularly in the prisons of the Eastern provinces of Iran, are more than what human rights organisations have been able to record.
Considering that in January 2011, one of the detainees who had been arrested on political charges was executed for ‘selling and possessing drugs’, it could be assumed that more prisoners who were convicted with other charges were executed under this title. But since the identity of more than 70 percent of those executed have not been declared, this is impossible to prove.
It is worth noting that, as part of a visit to Sistan and Baluchestan Province in February 2016, Shahindokht Molaverdi, the Vice-President for Women and Family Affairs, had said: “We have a village in Sistan and Baluchestan Province where every single man has been executed. The children of these families are potential drug traffickers as they would want to seek revenge and provide money for their families. There is no support for these people.” These comments by Ms. Molaverdi were suppressed after she was summoned to the court following a complaint by Sistan and Baluchestan Province’s Justice Department and there was no further mention of the issue or the village’s name by official media or authorities.
Torture and coerced confessions
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) established with the aim of equipping governments to handle drug, crime, terrorism, and corruption-related issues, has provided significant financial and technological aid for Iran’s counter-narcotics efforts. However, most of this aid is used directly for the arrest and subsequent execution of small-scale drug traffickers. The London based NGO Reprieve wrote in its 2014 report: ‘The UN’s records show it has given more than $15 million to ‘supply control’ operations by Iran’s Anti-Narcotics Police, funding specialist training, intelligence, trucks, body scanners, night vision goggles, drug detection dogs, bases, and border patrol offices. UNODC projects in Iran have come with performance indicators including ‘an increase in drug seizures and an improved capability of intercepting smugglers’, and an ’increase of drug-related sentences’. International human rights organisations have repeatedly asked UNODC to withdraw its support to Iran and to condition it on Iran’s abolition of the death penalty for drug traffickers. Faced with these concerns, a number of European countries including the UK, Ireland and Denmark have chosen to withdraw their support for UN-Iranian counter-narcotics operations.
Despite the European Union’s reliance on Iran’s strict anti-narcotic measures to prevent the flow of illicit drugs to Europe, the European Union has combined its support for Iran’s counter-narcotic trafficking programmes with humanitarian efforts in recent years by increasing pressure on Iranian authorities to stop the execution of drug traffickers. The effects of these pressures became apparent after the government of President Hassan Rouhani took office, which was impatiently awaiting a rapprochement with the West, particularly with the European Union. The current ongoing negotiations in Iran’s judiciary and executive bodies to remove the death penalty for drug traffickers could be regarded as an outcome of these efforts.
The European Union, the United Nations and Iran in the fight against drugs
The Iranian authorities have repeatedly admitted that executions have not deterred drug trafficking. Since Iran falls on the drug smuggling route from Afghanistan to Europe and considering the severe poverty and unemployment in the border regions of both Iran and Afghanistan, there is a need to combat poverty and unemployment as an effective measure to combat drug trafficking. It is also important to focus on rehabilitation programmes for drug addicts in Iran who are often abused because of their addiction and employed for drug trafficking. This would also help reduce demands and vulnerabilities and could be an effective measure in combating drug trafficking. Legalisation of soft drugs and alcoholic drinks could also help prevent organised crime and reduce the demand for heavier substances, but such a goal is unimaginable for Iran in the short term.
Over the past two years and as a result of the pressures exerted by international organisations, Iran’s judicial authorities have begun addressing the need to change the laws in order to lower the number of executions. Accordingly, the Iranian Judiciary presented a bill entitled ‘removing the death penalty for drug-related offences’ to the Parliament. The bill, which was later renamed ‘reducing the death penalty for drug-related offences’, is currently under review by the Parliament’s judiciary committee. In his recent statements, chairman of the Parliament’s Judiciary Committee, Allahyar Malekshahi announced that in the bill, the death penalty will remain in place for four categories of drug-related offences; including: ‘organized and gang crimes’, ‘armed drug trafficking’, ‘people who were forgiven once but repeated the offence’, and ‘bulk distribution and purchase of narcotics’. On November 23 2016, the Parliament acknowledged the immediacy of the proposed bill, raising hopes for its approval. However, human rights groups believe that despite its positive aspects, the bill will not reduce the number of executions in Iran significantly. They are critical of some clauses in the bill, which allow the execution of four categories of drug offenders: where a partner in crime or at least one of the participants in the crime has carried firearms or used any form of weapon, where the accused person has been the head of an organised crime band as referred to in Article 18 of this law or Article 130 of the Islamic Penal Code, where the accused person has previously been sentenced to death or 10 years or more of imprisonment or has spent at least 5 years in prison for drug-related offences, and where the accused has manufactured or imported the items enlisted in Article 8 of the law beyond a certain amount. This is while the amount of narcotics whose manufacturing or import would result in a death sentence has not yet been specified.
However, there is still a long way to go before the bill’s approval. It needs to be approved by the Guardian Council before it can be passed, who might suggest more changes to the bill.
Considering all of these legal barriers, as long as the detained persons do not have immediate access to a lawyer and are systematically tortured while in detention, reforms and changes to anti-narcotic laws are not enough in order to reduce the number of executions. For better implementation of justice and to lower the number of executions, the Iranian Judiciary should consider the issue of fair trials and fundamentally review the justice system. The judicial enforcement authorities and the police must be held seriously accountable for the torture and physical and psychological pressures applied to obtain coerced confessions. Prisoners should have access to a lawyer immediately after their detention and the lawyers’ role in the courts should become more significant.
Meanwhile, the European Union, which has previously exerted some pressures on the Iranian authorities, should continue pushing for changes in the law as well as fundamental reforms to the judicial process, ensuring fair trials for the accused in drug-related offences.
Preventing drug trafficking
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