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Human Trafficking and Iranian Law

July 21, 2018
7 min read
Human Trafficking and Iranian Law

Human trafficking is recognized as an organized crime under international criminal law. Not only has Iran defined trafficking as a crime under its own laws, but it has also signed up to many effective international treaties as part of its fight against human trafficking. However, the way human trafficking is defined in Iran’s criminal law has various loopholes, which means in practice there are few consequences for criminals who commit such a crime.

What is Iran’s definition of human trafficking?

Until 2004, there was no mention of human trafficking in Iranian law. In April 2004, Mohammad Khatami’s administration tabled a bill in the parliament that addressed human trafficking. Two months later, the bill was passed and, shortly after, it became law.

Iran’s definition of human trafficking is as follows:

“The departure or entry or transit of an individual or people in groups through countries’ borders by coercion, force, deception, intimidation, or by misuse of power or position with the aim of sexual exploitation, organ harvesting, involuntary servitude, or marriage.”

Does Iran recognize human trafficking crimes when Iranian citizens outside the country commit them?

An Iranian citizen is under Islamic Republic of Iran jurisdiction even outside the country. Human trafficking based on Iran’s definition include sheltering, transferring or hiding the victims of human trafficking. For instance, if someone who was not involved in human trafficking inside Iran’s territory sheltered victims of human trafficking outside the country, or who were passed through Iran in transit, they are considered to be a human trafficker, according to the law.

Do laws combatting human trafficking laws only concern Iranian citizens?

Anyone, citizens or non-citizens, who, according to Iran’s laws, are involved in human trafficking in any shape or form are potential criminals and can be prosecuted as soon as set they foot on Iran’s soil.

Do Iran’s laws recognize the crime of human trafficking inside its own borders?

No. According to Iran’s laws, similar criminal activities within the country do not fit into the category of human trafficking. In order for a crime to be labeled as such, victims need to enter or exit Iran’s borders. In other words, if a crime happens completely inside the country, it cannot be considered to be a human trafficking incident. This is one example of the loopholes mentioned earlier. 

What is the maximum punishment for human trafficking in Iran?

Islamic Criminal Law states: “Those smugglers who use firearms and put roads or people’s safety at risk are a mohareb (the enemy of God).” [The crime of moharebeh is literally translated as “waging war against God”]

According to this law, a mohareb will face one of the following punishments based on the discretion of the judge: execution, crucifixion, mutilation of opposite arm and leg, or exile.

However, if the criminal acts do not fall into the category of moharebeh, the reference will be the “Law against Human Trafficking.” According to this law, the maximum punishment for a human trafficker is 10 years’ imprisonment and a fine up to twice as much as the profits gained from the trafficking.

If a judge does not recognize a criminal as a mohareb, but there are victims involved below the age of 18, the human trafficker will get the maximum punishment — three years in prison. Iranian legal scholars, on the other hand, do not find this punishment incentive enough to prevent human trafficking.  

Which court investigates human trafficking cases?

The Islamic Revolutionary Court has the proper authority to investigate such incidents. The only exception is when such a crime has been committed by a cleric; in such a case, the investigation will fall into the hands of the Special Clerical Court.

Is there any support or compensation for victims of human trafficking under Iranian law?

Iranian law does not view the victims of human trafficking as criminals and often provides them with support. For example, if an Iranian citizen is a victim of human trafficking in another country and has been abused as an involuntary servant, the Iranian government is responsible for supporting them by any means possible. But there is no clarity in the law on what exactly such support looks like in practice, and what measures should be implemented. This lack of clarity is even more crucial when encountering sexual workers who were deceived or coerced. Therefore, another loophole in these laws is the lack of effective measures to deal with the victims and the traumas they suffer in the aftermath.  

What international treaties has Iran signed in its fight against human trafficking?

The first international document in the fight against human trafficking dates back to May 18, 1904. This treaty, an agreement for the suppression of the “White Slave Traffic,” was signed and ratified in Paris in the fight against the Caucasian slave trade. Iran was a signatory member of this treaty from the beginning. The most recent international document that Iran has signed is the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime, or the Palermo Convention. This convention was ratified in 2000 and came into force three years later.

Iran’s government signed the convention during the presidency of Mohammad Khatami, but the bill did not find its way to parliament for ratification until 13 years later. Hassan Rouhani’s administration sent the convention ratification bill to parliament four years ago, where it was ignored. Finally, the Iranian parliament ratified the convention in early 2018. Rouhani’s critics have been on the frontline of the battle against the convention’s ratification in Iran, and continue to oppose it.

The Palermo Convention is considered to be the most comprehensive international document in the fight against human trafficking. This treaty seeks to protect all human beings without discrimination, but it also pays close attention to the issue of the trafficking of women and children. For example, if the victim of sexual exploitation is below the age of 18, her employment, relocation, transit, and sheltering or hiding are all forms of human trafficking, even if there is no deception, coercion or intimidation.

In the international realm, procedures give priority to international laws and treaties. This means that if a national law conflicts with international law, the judge will act according to international law. However, according to the constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran, any law or regulation that contradicts sharia and Islamic law is not valid, and sharia will always be the criterion for the law of land. For example, according to Islamic law, the marriage of children below the age of 18 is completely legal. Therefore, the act of relocating underaged children to be sold as brides cannot be considered to be human trafficking. In other words, Iran’s definition of child trafficking is completely different to the international definition. Since the priority lies with national laws in this country, Iran sometimes ends up not enforcing international laws.

Could a human trafficking case inside Iran be a subject of an international hearing?

The investigation and prosecution of human trafficking cases are under the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court (ICC), which sits in The Hague in the Netherlands. The ICC recognizes human trafficking as a crime against humanity, and if a case falls under its jurisdiction, citizens (but not countries) can be subjects of an ICC prosecution.

Iran’s government has signed the statute of the court, but the bill for its ratification has not been sent to the parliament for a vote. If a country is not an official member of the ICC, on rare occasions its citizens can still be subjects of an ICC prosecution. As concerns for the fight against human trafficking continue to be raised all over the world, there is little room for criminals to continue escaping justice.

Under today’s global system, for example, when there is an instance of human trafficking, the United Nations Security Council can ask the ICC to investigate, or the Security Council can even form a new special court to investigate the issue at hand. In addition, if the criminal activities are intensive, the ICC can directly enter the issue and prosecute criminals.

Therefore, if Iranian citizens are involved in organized human trafficking, which falls under the category of crimes against humanity, they can be prosecuted by the ICC. Although such investigations are very complex and time-consuming, as time goes on, there will be fewer escape routes for criminals to avoid justice.


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