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Society & Culture

Drug Trafficking and the Death Penalty: Should the Law Change?

December 28, 2015
Mahrokh Gholamhosseinpour
6 min read
Drug Trafficking and the Death Penalty: Should the Law Change?


Seventy members of parliament have tabled a bill to amend existing laws against drug trafficking in Iran. The bill, which would eliminate the death penalty as a punishment for those found guilty of drug-related crimes, has recently been submitted to parliament’s Legal and Judiciary Committee. If approved, the death penalty could only apply to drug smugglers who use firearms in the course of their activities. 

The bill has huge support within parliament, but there is also strong opposition. 

Iran’s Expediency Council has amended the country’s anti-drug-trafficking law several times, in 1988, 1994 and 2001. The last amendment decreed that being in the possession of more than 30 grams of crystal meth was the same as the possession of heroin, and was punishable by the death penalty.

“I am neither for the bill or against it,” the MP Ali Jalilian, a member of parliament’s Legal and Judiciary Committee, told IranWire. “The committee must first examine the issue.”

“It is not right that the maximum punishment for all drug traffickers be life in prison,” he said. “The ringleaders or those who have resorted to firearms must get the death penalty. Life imprisonment should apply only to first-time offenders who have committed this act out of poverty or unemployment. A distinction must be made between these two groups. The smugglers and the ringleaders who hide beyond the borders of the country, who are trafficking at an international level and who have invested in the drugs trade should not benefit from this bill in any way.”

Jalilian said “judicial review and investigation, and meticulous examination of the records” would make it possible to distinguish between the two groups of criminals. “It would be possible to separate professional drug traffickers from those who have done it out of poverty and desperation.”

The bill to eliminate the death penalty for drug traffickers has touched a sympathetic nerve with some in the judiciary too. One report said that even Judge Esmatollah Jaberi, who has been given the nickname “Mr. Execution” because he has issued 350 death verdicts, supports the bill.

The bill’s supporters say the wholesale execution of drug traffickers has been costly for the Islamic Republic — both in terms of domestic public opinion and regarding the country’s image on the international stage. They argue that if the death penalty was an appropriate approach to solving the country’s drugs crisis, by now drugs would be less readily available, the number of drug addicts would have declined, and consumption of drugs in general — from opium and other “natural” drugs to crystal meth and synthetic drugs — would have fallen. The fact that these numbers have not shifted shows the policy has largely failed. Besides, anti-death penalty campaigners say, there is no consensus among religious authorities that the death penalty is necessary or appropriate.

Opponents: Don’t Remove the Fear

Among those who oppose the bill, the most powerful voice is law enforcement officials. Members of the police lobby believe that, if the bill is passed, there will be severe national security implications, and that the health of society would be put at risk. General Ali Mobedi, commander of the Anti-Narcotics Division of the national police, told Mehr News Agency that the police were ready to talk to the bill’s supporters, and to offer them its expert opinions. Drug trafficking cannot be seen in isolation, Mobedi said, because it is the source of many other crimes. He and other opponents believe that eliminating the death penalty would make major drug traffickers more brazen and lead to the expansion of their activities.

A former narcotics investigator and consultant to the Revolutionary Court who asked to remain anonymous told IranWire that if the bill became law, “the little fear that the traffickers have would evaporate and they would become bolder in smuggling drugs.” In his experience, he said, “the only just punishment for a major drug trafficker is the death penalty. We execute murderers, but do we want to spare the life of somebody who murders thousands of young people and damages them physically and mentally?”

The narcotics expert said that, over the course of his career, he has seen that drug trafficking in Iran “is measured not in kilos, but in tons,” and that the bill could pave the way for criminals to do even more damage. “After this bill is passed, those who had been afraid of the death penalty before would lose their fear and would commit any crime to get rich overnight, because in Iran, drug trafficking is one of the most lucrative businesses. I know kids of 11 who are addicted to crystal meth. I know a respectable 51-year-old teacher and grandmother who is addicted to synthetic drugs. Putting these things right again will take a long time.”

A step forward, but what will the Supreme Leader do?

But human rights activists, lawyers and those who for years have fought against the death penalty believe the fact that this discussion is taking place now is a step forward — although many doubt that on the eve of the elections for the Assembly of Experts the bill will even be brought to the floor and discussed within parliament, let alone pass into law.

Lawyer and human rights activist Mohammad Saleh Nikbakht considers the bill to be the best thing that has happened in this session of parliament. “The importance of this bill is that, although Iran has a population of 75 million people, it ranks high in terms the number of executions,” he told IranWire. Only China executes more people, and Nikbakht also points out that the United States executes a high number of criminals too.  “Considering that most death penalties in Iran are for drug-related charges, this leads to a negative image of the country both domestically and internationally. Many accuse Iran of ranking number one in executions, in relative terms to its population.”

“It seems that members of the parliament are responding properly to the number of executions and the publicity around it,” Nikbakht said. But he warned that there was also a serious obstacle that must to be considered. “The problem is that the anti-drug laws were passed not by parliament but by the Expediency Council — and they can only be changed by the same body,” he told IranWire. “So it appears that we are confronted with a procedural problem because the Expediency Council cannot changes the law without orders from the Supreme Leader.”

“All drug traffickers, big-time and small, regardless of whether they deal in non-synthetic drugs such as opium and its derivatives or in synthetic hallucinogens, fall under this law,” Nikbakt said, “and up to now harsh punishments have not helped in fighting drugs.”

“In criminology, scientific and preventive measures take precedence over punishment,” Nikbakht argued. “If the police or any other agency wants to fight drugs they must focus on preventive measures such as guarding the borders, controlling the import of raw ingredients used to make synthetic drugs and the identification of major trafficking operators.”

He acknowledged that the police and other authorities worry that if the death penalty is eliminated, drug-related crimes would rise. But, he said, “in recent years hundreds of people have been executed on drug charges and one would assume that as a result the production and the distribution of drugs would suffer. We can see that this has not happened. We cannot claim that we have been successful in this regard. There is no question that the police have really tried hard and some policemen have been selfless and even lost their lives. But the prevention of crime must take precedence over punishment. Prevention is less costly and more effective. Keep in mind that vaccination is more effective and less costly than treating a deadly disease.”


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