World Day Against the Death Penalty Draws Attention to Iran’s Drug-Related Executions

This year, the coalition is putting particular focus on the application of the death penalty to non-violent drug-related offenses. In this area as in the case of the death penalty in general, Iran is a leading offender. The Islamic Republic consistently holds the record for most executions per-capita, and the figure has been rising over at least the past two years. So far this year, more than 800 people are known to have been executed in the Islamic theocracy and of these, approximately 500 were executed for drug crimes.

The Iran Human Rights website pointed out on Thursday that the current rate of executions is the highest that the country has seen since 1990. It added that in addition to executing people whose offenses do not rise to international standards for the possible justification of the death penalty, Iran has executed people this year who were almost certainly innocent of the crimes of which they were accused.

The activist website specifically pointed to the case of Mahmood Barati, a teacher who was executed for a drug offense solely on the basis of another prisoner’s testimony, in absence of any corroborating evidence of testimony from neutral eye-witnesses. Various activist groups focused on human rights in Iran or on judicial abuses in general have pointed out that in many instances of the application of the death penalty in Iran, victims were systematically denied rights of due process.

The arbitrary nature of some executions also stands in contrast to principles banning double jeopardy and psychological torture in most democratic countries. Iran Human Rights pointed to one example of this in another report posted on Thursday. It noted that Morteza Bayat, a death row inmate convicted of killing his neighbors, was initially saved from the gallows by the Iranian legal principle of qisas, which allows the families of victims to pardon the perpetrators of crimes. But the victim’s father subsequently changed his mind and Bayat was put to death weeks after he was granted his reprieve.

This incident reflects judiciary practice with respect to many other inmates, including perpetrators of far less serious crimes and some political prisoners. Often, precise dates are not given for death sentences, and condemned inmates live in fear of having their names read out in announcements ordering them into solitary confinement as a staging ground for hangings. Making matters more distressing for prisoners, some are moved in and out of solitary confinement several times before their ultimate sentences are finally carried out.

These practices contribute to an environment in which judicially sanctioned killings are frequently carried out en masse in one prison or even in several prisons across the country. The more than 800 executions this year constitute an average rate of more than three hangings a day, but some days pass without any executions and some see several carried out at once. Indeed, Bayat’s execution was one of six that are known to have been conducted on Wednesday.

While also calling attention to the overall abuse of the practice, Iran Human Rights also joined the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty in emphasizing the rampant execution of drug offenders – a practice that even Iranian authorities have acknowledged as having no discernible effect on the prevalence of drug use in the Islamic Republic. The activist website thus called on the United Nations Office for Drugs and Crimes and all countries that are funding it to end their cooperation with Iran until such time as the government imposes a moratorium on execution of drug offenders.

The World Coalition has also been joined by a number of other global human rights organizations including Amnesty International, which issued a statement on Thursday naming Iran alongside ten other countries that “flout international law by executing for drug-related crimes.” Amnesty also noted the denial of due process and access to lawyers specifically in the case of Iran, and pointed out that many capital convictions have been secured through confessions that were extracted through torture.

While Amnesty deliberately issued its statement ahead of World Day Against the Death Penalty, it also pointed to a UN General Assembly special session on drug policy that is scheduled for next year. The rights organization emphasized that this gathering “will offer a critical opportunity to states to ensure that drug policies at both national and international level comply with international human rights law.”

Of course, rights activists and policymakers are also urging decisive action in the meantime, both on the specific issue of misuse of the death penalty and the more general issue of Iran’s notoriously bad human rights record. On Thursday, the European Parliament’s Friends of a Free Iran held a meeting to discuss both topics, coinciding with the delivery of a letter to Parliament President Martin Schulz. The group urged all member states to put human rights at the head of their interactions with the Islamic Republic of Iran, and to avoid the temptation to enter into expanded trade agreements while ignoring the West’s responsibility to defend human rights on a global scale.