Capital Punishment Roughly Halved Following 2018 Iran Drug Law Reform

Isabelle Aboaf

Drug offence executions in Iran have been approximately halved in 2018 following historic drug law reforms. According to Human Rights Watch and Harm Reduction International, approximately 225 individuals had been executed in 2018, 91 of whom possessed drug offences, whereas in 2017, these executions numbered 507 and 288 respectively. In the context of Iran’s drug epidemic, the approximate 50% decrease in drug-related executions reflects new amendments to drug laws, motivated in part by international pressure and grassroots efforts.

Amendments to “raise the bar” — i.e., by increasing minimum trafficking, possession, or trade amounts — for drug-related capital punishment had been passed by the Iranian Parliament in 2017, and had then approved by the Guardian Council that same year. Chief Justice Larijani’s judicial order in early 2018 initiated a review process for all current drug offenders on death row, introducing the possibility to commute prisoner’s execution sentences under the newly increased standards. At that time, approximately 5,000 prisoners, many of whom were between the ages of 20 and 30, had been eligible for case review. According to Iran’s Drug Control Headquarters (IDHQ), approximately 3,000-4,000 of those prisoners’ sentences would be commuted.

Yet, Iranian law enforcement agencies — including the IDHQ — have publicly expressed opposition to the new policy, despite calls by the global human rights community to cease use of the death penalty sentence. Former U.N. Human Rights Chief, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, called on Iran to “institute[e] a moratorium on the use of the death penalty” in response to widely accepted evidence that capital punishment is not only inhumane and irreversible, but also ineffective as a deterrent for drug possession and trafficking. Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and other human rights NGOs have likewise expressed strong opposition to execution as an appropriate means of punishment. This sentiment is echoed in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and interpreted by the U.N. Human Rights Committee: drug offences are not considered among the “most serious crimes”, and execution as punishment is therefore considered a violation of international law. Iran has ratified the ICCPR.

The international community has been — and will likely continue to be — an instrumental force in enforcing fair punishment and reducing executions in Iran. A report by the Crown Center for Middle East Studies points out these legal reforms reflect Iran’s capacity to respond to international pressures. Moreover, domestic influences and Iranian civil society play a positive role in the country’s approach to what amounts to a national public health issue.

Ever since Mohammad Khatami’s presidency in the 1990s, drug rehabilitation NGOs and public health organizations have proliferated and transformed treatment and services for drug-dependent individuals. According to a report by the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, “Non-governmental organizations [in Iran] are key partners in implementing drug treatment programmes… Their constant effort and lobbying has helped convince political and religious authorities to adopt new approaches to tackling the drug problem.” Grassroots rehabilitation may also improve community relations, such as stigma for seeking addiction help.

Iran’s drug epidemic, as well as the death penalty policy intended to address it, had arisen in the decades following the 1979 Islamic Revolution, during which religious and government officials launched a hard-line campaign against drug addiction, arresting and executing hundreds each year. The U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and the war on terror have exacerbated the issue, particularly by enabling high rates of opium smuggling over the Iran-Afghanistan border.

Officials at Harm Reduction International (HRI) have acknowledged the positive shift from revolution-era, zero-tolerance drug policies in Iran. However, according to the New York Times, there is still concern among activists that judges may seek to circumvent the new law.

According to HRI analysts, many individuals continue to be executed for low-level drug offences. International bodies and NGOs must maintain pressure on the Iranian government to enforce the recent reforms, consider drug sentencing alternatives, and manage borders. But further legal reform by Iran itself, including decriminalization of particular drugs, may be necessary to meaningfully reduce incarceration, lessen incentives for drug trafficking, and strengthen national security.

International law requires not only the reducing of, but ideally the elimination of the use of death penalty for drug offences in Iran. Furthermore, focusing on supporting community partners, including domestic treatment and rehabilitation services, will first and foremost improve the health and wellbeing of drug-dependent citizens, and, if well-enforced, the higher threshold for drug offences has the potential to advance human rights and citizen well-being in Iran.