Iranian lawmakers have proposed changes to the country’s tough antidrugs laws, a move that could abolish the death penalty for some drug-related crimes.
If approved by parliament, a proposed amendment could curb the number of executions in the Islamic republic, which has one of the highest rates of capital punishment in the world.
Iran has been under mounting international pressure to curb its number of executions. Human rights groups say Iran executed at least 567 people in 2016 and nearly 1,000 in 2015, including men from Afghanistan, where the majority of illicit drugs come into Iran. Iranian officials say 70 percent of all executions in the country were for drug-related offenses.
In Iran itself, calls have been made to ease the use of capital punishment for drug-related offenses. Critics say the extensive use of the death penalty has done little to stop drug use and trafficking in the country that is on a major transit route for drugs smuggled from Afghanistan.
Iran has some of the toughest drug laws in the world. The death penalty can currently be invoked for the trafficking or possession of as little as 30 grams of heroin or cocaine.
On July 16, parliament approved a proposal to amend the law to disallow the death penalty for petty, nonviolent drug-related crimes. Parliament speaker Ali Larijani, however, sent the draft bill back to the parliamentary judiciary committee for further deliberation.
"I have consulted the head of judiciary regarding this bill,” Larijani was quoted as saying by the semiofficial ISNA news agency on July 17. “They said they agree with the principle of the bill, but there are still some drawbacks that need to be resolved.”
Before becoming law, the legislation needs to be approved by parliament and ratified by the Guardians Council, the powerful clerical body that must approve all proposed legislation.
‘Height Of Cruelty’
The New York-based Human Rights Watch has called for the government to halt all executions for drug-related crimes while parliament debated the reforms.
“It makes no sense for Iran’s judiciary to execute people now under a drug law that will likely bar such executions as early as next month,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “It would be the height of cruelty to execute someone today for a crime that would at worst get them a 30-year sentence when this law is amended.”
In November, Hassan Nowruzi, the parliamentary judicial committee spokesman, called for parliament to change the law, revealing that 5,000 people were on death row for drug-related offenses, the majority of them aged between 20 and 30. He said the majority are first-time offenders.
In October, more than 150 lawmakers in the 290-member chamber called for the executions of petty drug traffickers to be halted. Lawmakers also suggested that capital punishment should be abolished for those who become involved in drug trafficking out of desperation or poverty.
In August, Mohammad Baqer Olfat, the deputy head of the judiciary's department for social affairs, said the death penalty had not deterred drug trafficking; in fact, he said, it was on the rise. Rather than the death penalty, he suggested, traffickers should be given long prison terms with hard labor.
But hard-liners in the judiciary appear to be resistant to the idea of tweaking the country's harsh drug laws.
In comments published in September, Judiciary head Ayatollah Sadegh Larijani defended the body’s “tough stance” against amendments to the law.
“In some cases, including drug trafficking, we’re forced to act quickly, openly, and decisively,” said Larijani, while adding that the judges should not delay the implementation of sentences.
He said in some cases “alternative punishments” can replace the death penalty while respecting “some conditions,” but added that “the death penalty cannot be ruled out.”
Thousands of Afghans involved in the illicit narcotics trade have ended up in Iranian prisons and have been executed. Afghanistan is the world’s largest producer of opium, which is used to make heroin, and Iran is a major transit route for the drug to western Asia and Europe.
The precise number of Afghans executed in Iran over the past several years is unknown. Tehran rarely informs or provides explanations to Kabul about the execution of its citizens.
Afghan media estimates that some 2,000 Afghans have been jailed in Iran on drug-smuggling charges and other criminal acts, while hundreds more face the death penalty.
Afghan lawmakers and human rights groups have raised concerns, saying many Afghans imprisoned in Iran do not receive fair trials because they lack access to defense lawyers and are not given the opportunity to get assistance from Kabul.