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Iranian Lawmakers Vote to End Death Penalty for Some Drug-Related Crimes

In a significant move that could prevent the execution of 5,000 convicted prisoners in Iran, lawmakers have voted to end the death penalty for certain drug-related crimes.

Current Law

Iran’s anti-narcotics law currently 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. The government made these amendments in response to a growing drug problem in Iran. In recent years, there have been discussions regarding a need to reduce the number of executions, and a growing effort to expand rehabilitation facilities to accommodate more individuals. However, this has not resulted in a decrease in the number of arrests for drug-related crimes.

Further, the majority of death sentences issued by the Revolutionary Courts are for drug offences. Established in 1979 and intended to be temporary, the Revolutionary Courts notoriously lack transparency and contribute significantly to the lack of basic due process extended to those facing drug-related charges that carry the penalty of death. Not only are the individuals arrested for drug offences systematically subjected to torture, those tried in Revolutionary Courts are not given adequate access to lawyers.

Background to the Bill

Last year, we wrote a blog about how, in December 2015, Iranian politicians proposed to limit the death penalty for certain drug-related crimes. Although the bill was never published, it appeared that those offenders caught with weapons while involved in drug trafficking would still be eligible for execution. It was not clear then whether this parliamentary reform would progress after the United Nations announced renewed funding for counter-narcotics efforts in Iran in the amount of $20 million in late December 2015, doubling its previous contributions.

Subsequently in October 2016, 150 MPs—over 50% of the Parliament—signed the bill limiting the application of the death penalty for drug-related certain crimes. According to most recent reports, Parliament voted on the reform bill on August 13, 2017. Originally scheduled for June 7, 2017, the vote was postponed until after the summer recess due to pushback from security bodies overseeing Iran’s anti-narcotics program. Prior to the vote, the Legal and Judicial Affairs Committee had requested that executions for drug offenders be halted until the law was passed, but executions for drug crimes continued despite pressure from several prominent human rights organizations. The Guardian Council—comprised of six theologians appointed by the Supreme Leader and six jurists nominated by the judiciary and approved by Parliament—must now approve this bill before it becomes law.

As it stands, the bill would change the punishment for some drug offenses to a prison term of up to 30 years, but maintain the death penalty for some non-violent drug crimes, including a range of drug trafficking crimes based on the type of drug and quantities seized. The bill proposes an increase in the quantities of drugs required to impose the death penalty: currently, possession of 30 grams of synthetic drugs, or trafficking, possession or trade of more than 5 kg of opium, or 30 grams of heroin carries a mandatory death sentence. The proposed bill increases the quantities to 50 kg of opium and 2 kg of synthetic drugs. The death penalty would also still apply to individuals convicted of a number of drug-related crimes including: those armed in the commission of a drug-related crime; leaders of trafficking cartels; using a child to traffic drugs; and previous drug-related crime offenders. The approved amendments also specify that possession, purchase, or concealing more than 3 kg of synthetic drugs such as methamphetamines is punishable by death.

Executions in Iran

Although executions are down from nearly 1,000 in 2015, Iran remains one of the most prolific executioner states worldwide.

Iran Human Rights reported that drug offences accounted for 48% of all of Iran’s executions in 2013, 49% in 2014, 66% in 2015, and 56% in 2016. This organization also reported that of the 239 executions carried out in the first half of 2017, 129 of those were for drug-related crimes. Amnesty International and the Abdorrahman Boroumand Foundation have recorded 319 executions in 2017 as of July 26, with 183 of those for drug-related offences.

Iran is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, a foundational human rights treaty, under which capital punishment’s applicability is limited to a category of “most serious crimes.” Despite this, Iran continues to carry out executions for non-violent drug-related offences. Given that it is widely accepted that only intentional homicides constitute “most serious crimes,” these executions for drug-related offences violate international law.

As the world’s second-most prolific executioner worldwide and with drug convictions underlying the majority of Iran’s executions, abolishing the death penalty for a portion of drug-related crimes would be significant news. If the amendment becomes law, it will reportedly affect up to 5,000 prisoners on death row for drug-related crimes in Iran. However, until executions for all drug-related crimes cease (as required by international law) and fundamental issues of due process are addressed, execution numbers are bound to remain high.