Soaring execution rates in Iran prompt condemnation of UNODC

The United Nations Office for Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has reiterated its intention to support a number of Middle Eastern countries in co-ordinating a trans-regional attack on the trafficking of heroin from opium-rich Afghanistan.  

The head of the UNODC, Yury Fedotov, announced last month that he would continue to encourage Iran, in particular, to bolster its counter-narcotics program. His statement comes amidst growing concern over the steep rise in the number of executions that have been taking place in Iran, most of which are related to alleged drugs offences. In the last few days, a number of high-profile groups, including Amnesty International, have warned the UN and other agencies funding Iran’s war on drugs that their support is facilitating and condoning the state’s perpetuation of gross human rights abuses. The European parliament has warned against the funding of counter-narcotics programmes that ‘result in human rights violations, including the application of the death penalty’. 

Iran’s much-admired and unusually sophisticated harm-reduction provisions have drawn much praise from the UNODC in the past – and rightly so. Iran was pioneering in its support for and provision of opium-substitution therapies. As a result of well-coordinated counselling clinics, needle exchange programs and rehabilitation centres, HIV rates (the virus was spread mostly by so-called ‘dirty’ intravenous drug use) in Iran began to fall after 2005. The New York Times called harm-reduction in Iran a ‘courageous program in an unexpected place’. 

The UNODC began working in Iran in 1998, a year after President Muhammed Khatemi (a reformist who favoured the compassionate application of the rule of law) came to power. The UNODC played a vital role in assisting Iran’s health ministry from 2002 to 2005 to implement a productive harm-reduction program.

The crucial progress made in Iran in these years has been somewhat reversed, however, and it is time for the UNODC and the EU to wake up to the fact that, since Ahmadinejad’s presidency, the Iranian administration has lost a good deal of respect for its citizens. In 2008 two highly-regarded Iranian doctors, Kamiar and Arash Alaei were arrested and held in Tehran’s Evin Prison after a secret trial. The brothers had been at the forefront of harm reduction programs in their country and it is widely believed that it was for this reason that they were targeted by the Ahmadinejad administration. Formally, they were charged with espionage and ’communications with an enemy government’. 

In spite of the fact that Iran’s drugs war has become more brutally punitive in recent years, the country continues to receive hefty support from the UN and the EU. Since 2005, the UN has awarded the country over £14million in return for the implicit promise that, by cracking down hard on drugs in Iran, the worldwide trade in illicit drugs will falter. Body scanners, sniffer dogs, radio communication and detection kits (many of which, critics argue, have been used in brutal political crackdowns) have been gifted by to the country in spite of the international sanctions currently in place against Iran.

An Amnesty International Report published yesterday warned that capital punishment rates in Iran have exploded even by official records.  According to the agency’s 44-page document titled ‘Addicted to Death: Executions for Drugs Offences in Iran’, at least 600 people were executed in Iran in the last eleven months. At least 488 of these deaths were related to alleged drugs offences. By Amnesty’s estimation, the number of drug-related executions for 2011 represents a threefold increase on 2009 figures . The numbers that Amnesty uses are, needless to say, made conservatively - there have been countless reports in recent years of secret mass executions taking place on a fairly regular basis, including one at Vakilabad Prison in Mashhad on 4 August 2010, when 89 individuals were apparently hung after a sham trial.

In an interview with the International Campaign for Human Rights, one prisoner described another mass execution carried out in Vakilabad in October 2009: ‘I was in Ward 6-1, so I could see the number of people executed (46) with my own two eyes. I saw their ritual religious cleansing, and them writing their wills. After these procedures, they were transferred to the location where they were executed’. 

According to multiple accounts, most of these inmates had been convicted for drugs-related crimes. Many of the prisoners had attempted to make formal complaints to the prison authorities that they had endured torture and were put under extreme pressure to make confessions, but all statements citing physical coercion had been dismissed by the judge at the trial. “All countries and international organizations helping the Iranian authorities arrest more people for alleged drugs offences need to take a long hard look at the potential impact of that assistance and what they could do to stop this surge of executions,” said Ann Harrison, Amnesty International’s Interim Middle East and North Africa Deputy Director .

A few months ago the Iranian government proudly announced that 90% of the executions that they had carried out this year had been for trafficking or possession offences. That figure beats even Amnesty’s damning claim that 81% of executions were linked to drugs according to their own figures. Whatever the true number of deaths is, it is painfully apparent that Iran’s hostility to narcotics crime has become more extreme in recent years: there are around 4000 Afghan nationals are on death row in Iran for drugs offences. 

Rick Lanes, the deputy director of the International Harm Reduction Agency said that ‘Many people around the world would be shocked to know that their governments are funding programs that are leading people indirectly to death by hanging and firing squads’

It isn’t as if western governments don’t know what’s going on in Iran. When it suits them, they are vocal in their condemnations of Iranian human rights abuses, its lack of legal safeguards for citizens and its rising capital punishment rates. It appears that, when it is in certain agencies’ interests, however, they are perfectly willing to turn a blind eye – Iran is permitted to clamp down on drugs by whatever means in order to prevent the seepage of opiates to other countries. A Foreign Office spokesman said that the UK took its counter-narcotics support for Iran very seriously but that it was absolutely opposed to the death penalty – this position has been made clear on a number of occasions, he pointed out. However, he added, ‘’ the illegal drugs trade causes huge damage to the UK and to countries all around the world. The UK's overseas work in tackling this threat involves a range of activities including improving policing and law-enforcement standards and promoting best practice."

 A report by the British Home Office last year stated that, "for … drug-related and political cases, reliable reports continued to emerge of forced confessions, staged trials and a lack of access to independent legal counsel". And yet, just a few months after this document was published, the foreign secretary William Hague, met Iran’s foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi to forge ‘deeper co-operation’ between the two countries on counter-narcotics work.

We cannot unconsciously sign up to the language of co-operation that Fedotov and Hague deploy to justify their oscillating position on Iran’s growing brutality towards its own citizens. A statement made by the UN itself in 2001 declared that ‘any state which aids another in the commission of an internationally wrongful act by the latter is internationally wrongful for doing so’. Now is the time for the UNODC to heed its own warning.