Iran Suspends Thousands of Drug-Related Death Sentences After Years of Domestic and International Campaigning
January 10, 2018–An estimated 4,000 prisoners currently on death row in Iran for drug-related crimes could have their death sentences revoked according to a just-issued judicial order based on the country’s newly amended drug trafficking law.
“Iran has taken a positive first step toward reducing the country’s high execution rate,” said Hadi Ghaemi, the executive director of the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI).
“The amendment to Iran’s Law Against Drug Trafficking is the result of the international community banding together to engage Iran on improving its human rights record as well as the determined efforts by activists inside Iran and members of Parliament to push the amendment past hardliners,” he added.
The order to suspend death sentences for drug-related crimes pending sentence reviews—issued by Judiciary Chief Sadegh Larijani on January 9, 2018—requires judges to rescind death sentences that do not meet the new conditions set by Parliament for the death penalty.
On October 14, 2017, the Guardian Council, which vets laws for conformity with Islamic principles, approved an amendment to the Law Against Drug Trafficking after it was passed in Parliament despite efforts by security agencies to halt the bill.
Iran has one of the highest per-capita execution rates in the world. More than 500 people were executed in 2017, the vast majority for low-level drug-trafficking crimes, including for carrying small amounts of illegal drugs.
An estimated 5,000 people were on death row in Iran prior to the judicial order for drug-related crimes, the vast majority first-time offenders under the age of 30. Data compiled by CHRI shows that in the 12 months prior to the passage of the amended law in October 2017, at least 270 prisoners were executed for drug crimes that are no longer punishable by death.
“I see this as a good omen,” a former member of Parliament in Tehran, Ali Akbar Mousavi Khoeini, told CHRI. “It has come a bit late but it will still save the lives of many human beings.”
Mousavi said he helped set up meetings between UN human rights officials and Iran’s drug enforcement officials in Geneva two years ago.
“I’m happy to see these efforts have led to constructive decisions by Parliament and the judiciary to reduce executions,” he said.
“I hope the amendment to the drug law will become a benchmark for future judicial reform to strengthen justice, freedom, peace and progress in Iran,” he added.
Under the revised law, the death penalty can only be issued in drug-related convictions involving:
- Armed drug-trafficking
- Playing a leading role in organizing and financing drug-trafficking, including with the use of child-trafficking
- Previous death sentences, life sentences, or sentences of more than 15 years
- Possession or transportation of more than 50 kilos of opium and other “traditional drugs,” two kilos of heroin, or three kilos of methamphetamine
“By our estimation, 4,000 of the 5,000 prisoners convicted of drug charges will be saved from execution,” said Yahya Kamalipou, the deputy chairman of Iran’s parliamentary committee for legal and judicial affairs, on October 30, 2017.
“I was a judge and prosecutor for 20 years so I’m well aware of the situation facing these prisoners and their families,” he said added. “Ninety percent of the prisoners on death row for drug crimes were just unfortunate mules carrying drugs to pay for their daughter’s dowry or an operation for their mother.”
“Thousands of prisoners who were on death row in Iran have seen a glimmer of light now that their sentences have been suspended,” said Ghaemi.
However, Ghaemi noted that more work must be done before there can be celebration regarding the sentence suspensions. The ultimate decision lies with Iranian judges, which have historically yielded to pressure by security agencies in issuing sentences regardless of the law.
“The international community must urge Iran to address its problematic laws that endanger lives for no justifiable reason,” he added. “Failing to do so will leave a vacuum for hardliners to continue to pursue inhumane policies.”