Iran: A Reflection on the Death Penalty and a Failed Anti-Narcotic Campaign
October 31, 2010
"In one case, the entire process -- the investigation, the issuance of the verdict, and implementation of the verdict took only 20 hours. This case demonstrates that cases about which the public is sensitive can be dealt with promptly and the judgment can be implemented without delay." Hojatoleslam Mohammad Ali Fazel, May 2007
In October 2010, various events took place in countries around the world to celebrate October 10, the World Day against the Death Penalty. The Islamic Republic of Iran marked the occasion by carrying out seven executions. Local authorities hanged three men and one woman in the city of Zanjan, a provincial capital west of Tehran, and three men in Shiraz, in the south. All seven were convicted of drug-related charges. On October 17, eight more executions in the cities of Esfahan and Ahvaz brought the official execution count to more than 210 for 2010.
Over the past decade, an increasing number of countries have banned executions, declared moratoria on the death penalty, or limited capital punishment to only the most heinous crimes. The Islamic Republic remains one of the countries where political dissidents as well as alleged criminals continue to be punished by death, often summarily and in high numbers.
Moreover, many of those who are prosecuted in capital cases as common criminals are among Iranian society's most vulnerable members. In cases such as that of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, who is sentenced to stoning for adultery based on the "judge's knowledge" rather than the required evidence, or that of drug offenders, poverty, a lack of formal education, and a dearth of interest on the part of civil society and the media typically leaves the accused with few resources defend themselves.
The likelihood of innocents being executed in summary trials is high. Individuals accused of drug-related offenses are particularly at risk considering Iran's heavy handed antinarcotics policies and the approach taken by judicial officials such as Hojatoleslam Fazel, the head of the Islamic Public Court and Revolutionary Tribunal in Shiraz. The latter, convinced of the need for speedy implementation of judicial decisions, told the IRNA news agency in May 2007:
"In one case, the entire process -- the investigation, the issuance of the verdict, and implementation of the verdict took only 20 hours. This case demonstrates that cases about which the public is sensitive can be dealt with promptly and the judgment can be implemented without delay."
Judicial authorities in Iran, like their counterparts in China, do not publish numbers and do not allow independent monitoring of cases involving the death penalty. The Islamic Republic's authorities deliberately withhold information on executions. Fazel of the Shiraz courts, for example, also noted that:
"Since it is inappropriate to make daily statements to the public about executions ... and to provide detailed information regarding the cases, court officials prefer that not all of them be reported."
Yet, based on data available mostly in official reports, the numbers of executions in Iran appear to be at least 468 in 2007, an estimated 223 so far this year, and 24 for the month of October. Such figures are revealing. Even though they may well be on the low side-actual number of executions could be much higher-they are high enough to place Iran consistently near the top of those countries among the most likely in the world to execute their citizens. Indeed, Iran has distinguished itself in the past few years as a serious contender for the highest rate of executions per capita.
The fifteen individuals who died on October 10 and 17 may or may not have committed the crimes of which they had been accused. Their offenses, possession or dealing (in some cases less than five pounds) of narcotics, are certainly not trivial. Yet neither do they belong in that category of "most serious crimes" that can be punished by death as described in Article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights-a covenant to which Iran is a party.
The enforcement of the death penalty in Iran deserves special attention, given a wealth of evidence pointing to widespread disregard for due process of law as well as multiple and systematic violations of defendants' rights. The authorities, for example, do not necessarily inform accused individuals of their rights, do not allow them to access a lawyer during interrogation, and may subject them to serious abuses should they refuse to incriminate themselves. Judges sometimes suggest to defendants to forgo their right for an attorney during the trial in exchange for a more lenient judgment. A defendant is often unable to examine witnesses or evidence or take other steps necessary to the presentation of a proper legal defense.
In cases involving allegations of drug possession or trafficking, on which some official data and statements are available, shortcomings in the law and in practice have grave and lethal consequences. Antinarcotic laws making executions mandatory for drug possession, the absence of genuine accountability for judges, hasty sentencing procedures encouraged by overcrowded jails, and the lack of independent monitoring are contributing to a flawed judicial process that has led to thousands of executions over the three decades of the Islamic Republic's existence. Several secret group executions of drug offenders in Mashhad were reported recently after a delegation from the Prison Organization visited the city's Central Prison in early August 2010 with the stated goal of investigating the overcrowding caused by the high number of prisoners doing time there on drug charges. The delegation's mandate is to organize camps dedicated to the detention of drug offenders.
Iranian authorities have released very little information about the cases of the fifteen people who were executed on October 10 and 17. In some instances, we may never even be able to learn the full name of the person who was killed. We also may never learn whether or not they were informed of their rights, beaten in order to make them confess, permitted to mount a proper defense, or even accused on the basis of false information, as may have happened to a hapless street performer named Habibollah Irvani. They become fresh statistics, numbers added to the long list of alleged criminals executed every year. In 2007, the Abdorrahman Boroumand Foundation collected reports of 193 executions on drug charges alone. The numbers remained high in 2009 with at least 171 drug-related executions. These high numbers are not unprecedented in the history of the Islamic Republic.
In the years following the 1979 revolution, the Islamic Republic waged a harsh campaign to eradicate addiction and trafficking. Prosecutors and judges were ordered to eliminate "corruption on earth" by, simply killing the "corruptors." Not only traffickers but even mere addicts were dealt with purely as criminals., Ayatollah Khalkhali, a religious judge mandated by Ayatollah Khomeini, spearheaded the campaign with the belief that the war on drugs was "more important than the war with Iraq". He traveled across Iran and as an itinerant judge, summarily trying and sentencing to death among many others, drug addicts, drug users and other alleged criminals. Attorneys were not allowed in the newly established religious courts:
"There is no room in revolutionary courts for defense lawyers because they keep quoting laws to play for time, and this tries the patience of the people."
Sentences were final; there was no right to appeal. The case of Amirqoli Darangzadeh was typical. According to newspaper reports, he was arrested a few days before his trial. He was charged with "possession of 72 grams of heroin and selling it to two distributors." The Shiraz Revolutionary Tribunal's deliberations in his case and that of several other defendants lasted but a single hour, at the end of which he was sentenced to death. (See also the case of Ms.Kotal Talili in Shiraz, or Morteza Tavakolian in Esfahan,)
Based on information that the ABF researchers have collected, the number of reported drug-related executions rose from more than 60 in 1979 to close to 400 in 1980 and nearly 600 in 1984. Regular antinarcotics campaigns are a fixture of Iranian life, leading to the summary execution of thousands and the arrest and conviction of hundreds of thousands of alleged addicts and traffickers. In January 1989, a new law decreed mandatory capital punishment for those found in possession of anything beyond a certain amount drugs. In June, Amnesty International referred to an April 5 program on Tehran radio in which Prosecutor-General, Mohammad Mousavi Khoeiniha boasted about the success of the new antidrug law:
"We hope that we shall solve this social problem through the decisiveness of the security forces and that the executions will continue until the last smuggler in the country is eliminated."
By decisive action, the Prosecutor-General meant the execution of 313 smugglers in a few months and that of 65 more by hanging the following day. In 1995, an official of the Tehran revolutionary courts noted that a law passed in November 1994 in the framework of the campaign against narcotics had allowed those arrested on drug charges to be prosecuted and sentenced in less than 48 hours. According to official statements, in the Iranian year 1378 (1998-99) alone, a total of 15, 869 people were sentenced to death for drug-related offenses. Even though a high percentage of those given a death sentence were not actually executed, an estimated 5,000 people did die for drug trafficking between 1995 and 2005.
The annals of the Islamic Republic are rife with official statements stressing the decisiveness of the police and courts and encouraging summary judicial proceedings plus the beating of suspects. The unleashing of such unconstrained state violence in the name of combating criminality has done little to eradicate addiction or trafficking, however.
Official statistics in the first decade of the twenty-first century do not allow optimism. Iranian officials recognize that Iran continues to face a "drug crisis." In 2005, 60 percent of the prison population was doing time for drug offences. According to the head of the State Welfare Organization, drug use was growing at a rate four times greater than the rate of population growth. In 2008, officials estimated the number of individuals arrested and detained in Iranian prisons every year to be more than 700,000. Some 200,000 were arrested between March and September 2010 for addiction or drug-dealing. According to the head of the state's Prison Organization, drug dealers now comprise more than half the prison population. Before the revolution, they made up 5 percent.
Executions mount, in other words, but they have no effect. As most countries around the world move toward abolishing the death penalty, or are limiting its use to only the most heinous crimes, the Islamic Republic's violent drug-eradication campaign continues without a visible deterrent impact-and without drawing much in the way of national or international attention. Political prisoners in Iran are occasionally the focus of the outside world's concern. Criminal prisoners-who may not be guilty, whose rights have been violated during investigation, and whose death sentences are not always publicized-are rarely noticed, and hardly remembered.
For many years, the thousands of Iranians brutally silenced for not agreeing with their government and the increasing numbers (at least 1,500 since 2007) of alleged criminals executed were deemed irrelevant to the international effort to hold Iran accountable, on the nuclear issue in particular. This effort has yielded little result. The impunity that Iranian leaders enjoy within their country has certainly not encouraged them to be more responsible outside Iran.
The right to a proper defense is not an extravagance. It is meant to prevent the conviction of innocents and is a serious challenge to those who violate citizens' rights with impunity. The obstacles Iranians face in defending themselves in a flawed judicial process and the genuinely hazardous path, including prison and exile, for attorneys who persist in defending their clients need more international attention. It is time for those with international-security concerns to make common cause with those who want to end human-rights violations in Iran. Clearly, bringing about change in the law and practice in Iran will not happen overnight. But, a strong and persistent call for a moratorium on the imposition of the death penalty would be a good place to start.
On a global scale, there are currently there are 95 countries - as opposed to 16 in 1977 - that have declared the death penalty illegal, including Burundi and Togo, which took steps to abolish the death penalty in 2009. Additionally, for the first time in recent years, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Indonesia and Mongolia did not carry out any death sentences in 2009. Amnesty International, Death Sentences and Executions 2009, Amnesty International Publications 2010
Statement by Hojatoleslam Mohammad Ali Fazel, Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA), May 12, 2007; http://www.iranrights.org/english/document-343.php
http://www.chrr.biz/spip.php?article10990; On the visit to the Mashad prison of a delegation in charge of organizing detention camps dedicated to drug offenders see the prison report dated 4 August 2010 in Farsi: http://www.khorasanprisons.ir/index.php?Module=SMMNewsAgency&SMMOp=View&SMM_CMD=&PageId=442
Enghelab Eslami, 29 November 1980
Ayatollah Sadeq Khalkhali in Amnesty International, May 13, 1979
The new law provided for a mandatory death sentence for anyone found in possession of more than five kilograms of hashish or opium, or more than 30 grams of heroin, codeine, methadone or morphine.
Nasrin Sotudeh and Mohammad Oliya'ifard are of the most recent names on a list of Iranian attorneys punished for trying to defend their clients. They are being held in Evin Prison in Tehran. Shirin Ebadi, human rights defender and winner of the Nobel Peace prize, was arrested for trying to collect evidence in the case of students who were victims of a violent attack of their dorms by security forces in July 1999. Last summer, Mohammad Mostafa'i fled the country after being summoned to court when he gave visibility to Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani's stoning sentence. As we speak, Hutan Kian, another attorney working on Ashtiani's case is in prison as well as her son. They were both arrested when talking to German journalists about the case.