On Saturday, July 15, just one day before Iran’s parliament passed an amendment to drug laws in an effort to reduce death penalty sentences against traffickers, authorities executed Najmaddin Safipour.
Safiipour, a taxi driver who came from a village in the western province of Lorestan, was jailed for possessing 12 kilograms of crystal meth. He was executed in the central prison of the provincial capital of Khorramabad.
Prior to his conviction on drugs charges, he had no criminal record. He had claimed that the crystal meth did not belong to him, but to another man who had been executed before him.
On the same day, three other people who had been arrested seven years previously were hanged in Zahedan, the capital city of the southeastern province of Sistan and Baluchistan. Two others were executed in Urmia in the northwestern province of West Azerbaijan.
“This rush to execute seems puzzling,” says Mahmood Amiry Moghaddam, director for the Iran Human Rights organization and campaigner against capital punishment. “Why execute them one day before the legislature was to pass a bill that would have saved these petty criminals from certain death?” According to his organization, 40 people have been executed in the last 17 days, and 170 people have been executed on drug-related charges since the beginning of 2017.
Moghaddam also fears that most people currently on death row in connection with drugs crimes could face execution before the bill is passed.
Judiciary Begs To Differ
Human rights activists had been hoping that this bill would pass as soon as possible. Instead, a string of problems and oppositions emerged in recent months, blocking the bill from becoming law. Even on July 16, after parliamentarians approved the general outlines of the bill, a representative for the judiciary announced that court officials did not agree with one particular provision of the proposed law. As a result, the bill, which had been the subject of a drawn-out battle between its supporters and opponents, was sent back to parliament’s Judiciary Committee for review.
Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani confirmed that the bill still has some way to go before it becomes law. “I asked the representative for the judiciary about the bill. He said he agreed with the general outlines of the bill but [that] there were problems with the details that must be solved. As the chairman of parliament I have the authority…to send the bill to the Judiciary Committee to deliberate further on the details.”
Saleh Nikbakht, a Tehran-based lawyer and human rights activist, told IranWire that the recent parliamentary procedure is permitted under Iranian law. “When such a bill is introduced,” he says, “parliamentary committees and the representative of the judiciary review it. Sometimes they might come against it and even reject the general outline. This seldom happens — but it is possible.”
Unlike Amiry Moghaddam, Nikbakht is optimistic about the bill’s prospects. “Introducing such a bill is in itself something positive,” he says. “It is unlikely that it will make the situation for petty drug traffickers worse than it is now. It is a hopeful sign that now there is the mentality in society that the death penalty is not the right way to prevent drug-related crimes.”
Nibakht says the drugs laws passed with the approval of the Expediency Council impose harsh punishments on the distributors and sellers of illicit drugs, but they have failed to reduce drug-related crimes.
Four-Fifths of Executions are Drug-Related
According to Nikbakht, four-fifths of all executions in Iran are drug-related.
This puts Iran top of the list of the countries with the highest number of executions, tarnishing the country’s image on the international stage. Fortunately, Nikbakht says, this is changing. He says authorities “have learned that these punishments have failed to prevent more crimes, and every year they have been paying a high price for it.” He says finally the government is taking a good look at what other solutions might be available, particularly considering “the increase in the number of executions, the ballooning of the prison population and shortage of physical space in prisons.” He also doesn’t believe opposition to reform will be strong enough to stop the bill. “The opposition of the parliamentary committees and the judiciary to this bill is not strong enough to reject it,” he says.
In summer 2016, members of the Judiciary Committee asked the Iranian judiciary to postpone drug-related executions until the fate of the bill was decided. But, says Amiry Moghaddam, the fact that so many people were executed just a day before parliament’s public session to vote on the bill proves that the judiciary has paid no attention to this request.
“According to information that we have received,” Moghaddam says, “in just the past 17 days, 40 people have been executed. Sad to say that since the beginning of 2017, 170 people have been executed on drug-related charges — but the official sources have confirmed only 12 cases.”
Are these statistics reliable, I asked Amiry Moghaddam? “Yes. I confirm these statistics because we have received them from two independent and reliable sources. Often we receive the news from the families. In July, close to 70 people were executed and we think that there is a plan to execute all those who have been convicted of drug-related charges before the final passage of the bill.”
Poverty and Justice: A Deadly Mix
Moghaddam emphasizes that many of the accused have no previous criminal records, and that poverty often drives them to commit their first offences. Many of these people, he says, would be saved from death if executions were postponed until the final approval of the bill.
This year, the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty, an international organization of 140 representatives from 40 countries, has chosen the motto “Poverty & Justice: A Deadly Mix” to mark 2017’s World Day Against the Death Penalty, scheduled for October 10. “The application of the death penalty is inextricably linked to poverty,” the coalition says. “Social and economic inequalities affect access to justice for those who are sentenced to death for several reasons: Defendants may lack resources (social and economic, but also political power) to defend themselves and will in some cases be discriminated against because of their social status.”
Iranian judiciary officials insist that those people who have been executed were drug smugglers. But this isn’t enough to address the complexity and roots of the epidemic. It’s true that not all drug smugglers are poor, but they still might be the victims of poverty.