The continued use of the death penalty as a punishment for drug offences is becoming an increasingly contentious issue in Iran, with numerous political figures endorsing its repeal.
Without specifically referring to drugs, Iran’s Justice Minister, Mostafa Pourmohammadi, announced in October that the death penalty is applied as punishment in too many cases. He said he sought to find a non-lethal punishment for most capital offences as the current approach had not had a deterrent effect, although he favoured retaining the death penalty for “corrupt people”.
Pourmohammadi’s comments came shortly before it was announced that a motion signed by 76 Members of Parliament has been brought before the Iranian Parliament with the aim of ruling out the death penalty for first-time drug smugglers, many of whom are juveniles.
This is in addition to a bill which has been under consideration since December 2015 which proposes to eliminate the death penalty for all drug offences – including possession and production – with the exception of armed drug smuggling. This bill has been endorsed by around 150 members of the 290-seat Parliament and is under review by the legislature’s Legal and Judicial Committee.
Yahya Kamalpur, the Deputy Head of the Legal and Judicial Committee voiced his support for reform, stating that the execution of people who smuggle drugs “will not benefit the people or the country”, and that the punishment could be replaced by long prison sentences or hard labour. Kamalpur has called for a “scientific and not an emotional solution”.
Despite growing political support, the bill won’t necessarily become law if it passes through Parliament. It would still require ratification by the Guardian Council of Islamic Jurists, a hard-line conservative force which has thus far stood in the way of many changes desired by the relatively moderate Rouhani administration.
The head of the judiciary, Ayatollah Sadegh Amoli Larijani, has said that there should be no let-up in executions for drug offences as they cause “the destruction of families”.
In 2011, the UN reported that Iran had the second highest rate of opiate use in the world, with over two per cent of the adult population (aged 15-64) reporting use during the past year.
Iran also has the second highest number of executions in the world, after China. In 2015 alone, Iran executed at least 977 people, the majority of whom were killed for drug offences. The actual number of executions that take place may be even higher due to government underreporting.
Punishments for violating drug laws have become increasingly strict in recent years. Until 2011, any person found to be possessing, producing, or selling more than 30 grams of cocaine or heroin would be branded a “corruptor on earth” before being executed by the state. Since then, that punishment has also become a requirement for anyone possessing the same amount of illegal synthetic drugs, such as methamphetamine.
The death penalty is not mandated for drug offenders by Sharia Law. Rather, such strict punishments may be better explained through a geopolitical lens. The Iranian government has long-struggled with heroin trafficking – and the instability that brings – along its eastern borders with Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Between 1987 and 2007, over 3,500 Iranian soldiers and police officers were killed in clashes with drug smugglers in a border war that is still ongoing.
Soaring production rates of opium in Afghanistan, cross-border trafficking, and a population crippled by foreign economic sanctions, have contributed to high rates of problematic drug use in Iran. This has reinforced Iran’s role as both a transit country and a destination on the opiate trafficking route from Afghanistan to Europe.
Iran’s counter-narcotic efforts rely heavily on international funding, particularly from European countries. However, the UK, Ireland, and Denmark withdrew such funding in 2015 due to Iran’s increasing execution rate, according to Reprieve.
The combination of economic pressures and an apparent thawing of political relations between Iran and the West over the last year has perhaps encouraged political support for ending the death penalty. Despite this momentum, the Guardian Council of Islamic Jurists remains a serious obstacle in the pursuit of Iranian drug policy reform.