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Iran Parliament Passes Drugs Bill That Could Save Thousands of People on Death Row

Iran’s parliament has passed a long-awaited amendment to its drug legislation which could limit the use of the death penalty, potentially saving the lives of thousands of people currently on death row for drug-related offences.

The passing of the bill on August 13 comes after months of ongoing parliamentary debate. However, the bill still needs to be approved by the Guardian Council of Islamic Jurists – a conservative group which has previously acted as an obstacle in the pursuit of progressive policy reform.

The state-affiliated Tehran Times reported that the “new law raises the amounts that can trigger the death penalty from 30 grams to two kilograms for the production and distribution of chemical substances such as heroin, cocaine and amphetamines”. Additionally, the paper reports that “for natural substances such as opium and marijuana, the levels have been raised from five to 50 kilos”.

If approved by the Guardian Council, the amendment will apply retroactively – thereby commuting the sentences of many of the estimated 5,000 inmates currently on death row for drug offences. The legislative amendment would allow those whose offences fall below the new thresholds to have their sentence converted to imprisonment of up to 30 years and a fine.

The Guardian Council must review legislation within ten days of the bill's passing, and approve or disapprove it on the basis of its compatibility with Islam and the Iranian constitution. If they do not approve the bill, the Parliament will have an opportunity to revise it.

Drug trafficking represents a serious challenge for Iran due to its role as a major transit country for opium smuggled from Afghanistan. At least 567 people were executed in Iran in 2016, the majority for drug-related offences – according to Amnesty International. While the magnitude of this should not be undervalued, it marks a 42 per cent decrease in executions from 2015.

As TalkingDrugs has reported, numerous high-profile political figures in Iran have recently voiced support for a repeal of the death penalty for drug offences in the country, citing the punishment’s ineffectiveness at reducing the flow of illegal drugs. In October 2016, Justice Minister Mostafa Pourmohammadi said that he sought to “find a non-lethal punishment for most capital offences” as the current method failed to have a deterrent effect, although he favoured retaining the death penalty for “corrupt people”.

Yahya Kamalpur, the Deputy Head of the Legal and Judicial Committee, declared that executing people for drug smuggling “will not benefit the people or the country”.

More recently, in July 2017, the Parliamentary Judicial Committee’s spokesperson Hassan Norouzi favourably spoke of how “the death sentence of more than 5,000 [drug] prisoners could be converted into prison sentences” by the new legislation. An issue he has previously described as being important because many of them are young first-time offenders.

Despite this potential progress, Iran has no plans to abolish capital punishment for all drug-related offences.

“The amendment [will continue to allow] the death penalty [for] criminals who lead drug-trafficking gangs, exploit minors below 18 years old in doing so, carry or draw firearms while committing drug-related crimes, or have a related previous conviction of the death penalty or a jail sentence of more than 15 years or life in prison”, the Middle East Eye reports.

The Guardian Council’s decision on the bill must be made public by August 23, from which point it will become clearer if Iran will be taking a gradually more progressive approach to drug policy, or if it will continue to commit severe human rights abuses in the name of a failed drug war.

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