A recent press release from Amnesty in July 2022 highlighted a spike in Iranian executions, where at least 251 people had been executed in the first half of 2022. This report was confirmed by local Iranian watchdog organisations, noting that more than a third of these executions (36%, or 91 people) had been for drug-related offences. This rise represents a rapid escalation in state-sponsored violence, occurring within a context of raising political unrest in the nation.
Iran Human Rights (IHR) has been monitoring executions in the Islamic Republic of Iran for the past 17 years. According to several reports gathered by them, demonstrate that there had been at least 126 people that were executed for drug-related offences in 2021, a five-fold increase in comparison with the previous three years.
An annual average of at least 403 people were executed for drug-related offences between 2010 and 2017. There had been a significant reduction in the number of drug-related executions in the three years following the implementation of the Amendment to the Anti-Narcotics Law at the end of 2017, with a rise in 2021. Source: IHR
IHR’s work is particularly vital to reporting drug-related deaths, as the Iranian government often hides their executions: IHR said that none of the drug-related executions in 2021 were reported by the state, having instead to verify the deaths through independent sources. Of the 251 conducted in the first half of 2022, only 31 were confirmed by domestic media or government officials.
The history of drug executions in Iran
Iran’s drug laws are governed by its Anti-Narcotics Law of 1988, which has been amended three times: in 1997, 2011, and 2017. The 1997 and 2011 amendments introduced the death penalty for 17 drug-related offences, including the possession of certain quantities of drugs (over 30 grams of heroin, morphine, cocaine or their derivatives), planting opium poppies, and producing or smuggling drugs into Iran.
The 2017 round of amendments aimed to limit the application of the death penalty for certain crimes, raising the minimum quantities for executions: for example, the minimum threshold for the death penalty for heroin possession went from 30 grams to five kilograms, and for cannabis from five kilograms to 50.
The law was also retroactive; those already on death row for drug-related offences should have had their sentences commuted to a maximum of 30 years in prison, with an additional fine. This meant that the sentence of an estimated 5,000 people on death row for drugs could have been changed. Death sentences were restricted to those convicted of carrying weapons, financially supporting or organising drug-related crimes, and to those that had been previously sentenced to death (or life imprisonment) for over 15 years.
Tragically, the Iranian government continued drug-related executions throughout the parliamentary deliberation of the 2017 amendments, despite requests from members of parliament to suspend them. IHR believes that at least 231 prisoners were executed during the negotiation process of the 2017 amendments, many of whom would have had their sentences commuted according to the new law. Executions were conducted until the last possible moment: one person was even killed the day before the law was enacted.
The devil is in the detail
IHR have noted with concern that the 2017 amendments did not automatically commute death sentences to life imprisonment; prisoners would have to appeal to the High Court to have their sentences changed. Drug-related prisoners often lack access to a lawyer who can explain these changes in sentences; they are often tortured upon arrest, and thus “confess” long before they receive legal support or go to court. These conditions may mean that people may still be executed if they do not have access to a lawyer or are aware of the changes in laws.
Harm Reduction International, which monitors the global use of the death penalty for drug offences, notes that the death penalty is internationally restricted by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) to only the “most serious crimes”, which excludes drug-related offences. Using the death penalty for drug offences is also in contradiction of international drug control laws as indicated by the United Nations Office on Drug Control (UNODC) and the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB). While it is not legally binding, Iran has been a member of the ICCPR since 1976.
Multiple UN agencies, from the Human Rights Council to the UNODC have explicitly denounced the use of death penalty for drug-related crimes, adding to the international pressure from Amnesty and others to condemn Iran’s punitive approach to drug control.
“From our monitoring, we saw that the decrease in executions [from 2018 to 2020] was largely due to political developments and legislative amendments at the national level, influenced by international pressure, including by UN agencies” said Ajeng Larasati, Human Rights Lead at HRI.
Drug deaths looming in the horizon
More recently, a toxic concoction of a global pandemic, Western de-prioritisation of Iranian geopolitics, and national unrest have led to a worrying rise in executions in Iran.
“When the authorities fear protests and feel that they are not under scrutiny, the execution numbers increase,” said Amiry-Moghaddan. “After the nationwide protests of 2019, and when the COVID-19 restrictions were lifted, the Iranian authorities [increased] the number of executions to prevent more protests”.
The past three years have been an undoubtedly violent and turbulent time for Iranian people. Through 2019 and 2020, there was a series of nationwide protests in the country against exponential rises in fuel prices. The state’s repression was brutal: around 1,500 protesters were murdered in less than two weeks in November 2019, with bodies reportedly being hidden to avoid national and international attention.
The most recent period of unrest, ongoing since July 2021 due to water, food and energy shortages across the country, has also been met with brutal police violence. Violent clashes between protesters and law enforcement have killed several people and led to the arrest of hundreds more.
Executions have since accelerated: since the start of the May 2022, which marked the government’s abrupt end to grain, medicine and petrol subsidies, at least 56 people were executed only in that month. A further 81 were executed in June, making the latter the deadliest month in the past five years. None of the deaths in the first seven months of 2022 were officially announced, according to Amiry-Moghaddam.
“People sentenced to death for drug offenses are among the poorest and most marginalised parts of society making them low-cost victims for the Islamic Republic's death penalty policy. At the same time, the West is mainly focused on the Iranian nuclear issue and doesn't pay enough attention to the human rights issues in Iran, making the political cost of the executions even lower for the Iranian authorities,” he said.
Only sustained pressure from the international community is believed to have an impact on drug-related deaths. “We need to get stronger reactions from the UNODC and the EU. International pressure is what can help at this stage.” Until then, the future of those arrested for drugs seems bleak.