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Photo by Lilly Marfy

Could Iran End the Death Penalty for Drug Offenses?

It is easy to be cynical when observing the interactions between the government of Iran and much of the rest of the world. Posturing followed by counter-posture has been the only overt form of communication since the Iranian revolution of 1979. It is no different when it comes to Iran’s prolific use of the death penalty, but there may be some promising signs of progress regarding Iran’s use of capital punishment in its drug enforcement program.

According to the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center, Iran executed nearly 1,000 people in 2015. Other estimates are even higher.[efn_note]The Abdorrahman Boroumand Foundation reports 1,052 executions in 2015.[/efn_note]

Numerous persistent executioner states, including Iran, continue to carry out executions for non-violent drug related offenses, which do not fall into the category of “most serious crimes” to which capital punishment is limited under a foundational human rights treaty to which Iran is party, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Today, it is widely accepted that only intentional homicides constitute “most serious crimes” under international law.

The UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Iran reported that 69% of Iran’s executions in the first half of 2015 were for drug related crimes. Indeed, Iran’s anti-narcotics law includes 17 different drug related crimes punishable by death, ranging from possession to manufacturing and trafficking. Iran’s anti-narcotics law was drafted in 1988 and amended in 1997, and again in 2011. These amendments were made in response to a growing drug problem in Iran. The government responded by issuing stricter sanctions and this resulted in an expansion of the death penalty. However, there have been recent admissions within the country from government officials that the increased execution rate for drug related offences has not reduced drug crimes in Iran. This has prompted some Iranian officials to call for review of the death penalty for all drug crimes, with the exception of armed trafficking.

On December 8, 2015, members of Iran’s Parliament, the Majlis, brought forward a bill to eliminate the death penalty for 16 of the 17 drug offenses criminalized in Iran’s anti-narcotics law. While the bill was signed by at least 21 members of the Majlis, reports suggest that 70 MPs presented the bill. Under this legislation, it appears those offenders caught with weapons while involved in drug trafficking would still be eligible for execution. While the Majlis, made up of 290 members, has the power to present bills and pass laws, the Guardian Council must approve all bills before they can become law. The Guardian Council, in turn, is comprised of six theologians appointed by the Supreme Leader and six jurists nominated by the judiciary and approved by the Majlis. Although the language of the bill itself has not been made public, up to 70 MPs (which would represent nearly 25% of Parliament), have reportedly proposed to replace the death penalty for nearly all drug crimes with a life sentence. If this bill were to pass, it would be applied retroactively, ending executions for all drug crimes with the exception of armed trafficking.

Iranian officials claim that the execution rate would decline by 80% should the bill pass. Investigations led by human rights organizations, have concluded that many of those executed for drug crimes were unarmed, but that many of these cases were not thoroughly investigated, and that defendants did not receive a fair trial or have proper access to counsel. Some have even involved juvenile offenders.

While it is the first time such a proposition has come directly from Iranian politicians, others within Iran’s government have previously advocated for similar reforms. Last year, the Iranian judiciary proposed ending the death penalty for drug offences but, once proposed, no known steps were taken to implement this recommendation. There have also been reports that the deputy head of the anti-narcotics task force recently unsuccessfully attempted to garner support within Parliament to eliminate the death penalty for drug crimes. There may be a genuine change in the air.

It may be helpful to consider the broader context of this most recent parliamentary proposal and the history of UN funding of Iranian anti-narcotics programs. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crimes (UNODC) first established a presence in Iran in 1999 with the aim of minimizing drug related crimes. For the first six years, UNODC primarily provided technical assistance to Iran and, in 2005, a new program was initiated to reduce drug trafficking, assist with developing a prevention and treatment infrastructure to address drug abuse, and promote the rule of law regarding drug crimes. In 2010, a Country Program was launched to assist Iranian efforts on drugs and crime, while promoting UN standards and international best practices. Its focus points were trafficking and border management, reducing drug demand and HIV control, and assisting with crime, justice and corruption.

These UNODC programs have all been funded through voluntary contributions by UN member states, including European countries such as France and Germany, while others, including the United Kingdom, Denmark and Ireland, have recently withdrawn support over Iran’s execution rate. For a breakdown of funders by program see here: A number of human rights organizations have lobbied European countries to make their contributions conditional on Iran ending executions for drug related offences. All European countries (with the exception of Belarus) have abolished the death penalty, and the abolition of capital punishment is a pre-requisite for entry into the European Union and the Council of Europe. The complicity of European countries in Iranian executions violates the spirit of these laws. Although the UNODC’s policy indicates that it may temporarily freeze or withdraw its support if executions for drug related crimes persist, it has yet to take such action. This has allowed Iran to legitimize its surge in executions, claiming it has UN backing.

It is noteworthy that the latest parliamentary proposition came just ahead of final negotiations to renew funding for its counter-narcotics efforts by the UNODC. Sure enough, despite international pressure and Iran’s execution surge, the UN announced renewed funding for counter-narcotics efforts in Iran in the amount of $20 million on December 21, 2015, doubling its contributions. It is not clear whether the parliamentary reform will now progress at all.

The recent proposal for death penalty reform by a group of Iran’s parliamentarians may simply have been window dressing ahead of UNODC’s funding decisions. However, there have been other indications in Iran’s criminal justice system that the time is ripe for change. Iran’s use of capital punishment for drug offenses is not only a bad policy, but may also be bad politics.