Iran drug law change could get 5,000 prisoners off death row

A recent criminal justice reform initiative in Iran could get thousands of prisoners convicted of drug offenses off death row.

An Iranian soldier walking in a corridor of Evin prison during a journalist's visit to the prison in Tehran, Iran. File Photo by Mohammad Kheirkhah/UPI | License Photo
An Iranian soldier walking in a corridor of Evin prison during a journalist’s visit to the prison in Tehran, Iran. File Photo by Mohammad Kheirkhah/UPI | License Photo

The change in law is set to apply retroactively, meaning that up to 5,000 prisoners could evade execution after Ayatollah Sadeq Larijani asked officials to halt executions of those affected by the new amendments.

In August, the Iranian parliament raised the threshold for a death sentence to a possession of nearly 110 pounds of opium, nearly 5 pounds of heroin or nearly 7 pounds of methamphetamine. Before the change, possessing 11 pounds of opium or 66 pounds of heroin was a capital offense.

Iran is second to China in the number of prisoners executed in recent years — killing 500 people in 2017 alone, mostly for drug offenses, and 10,000 people since 1998.

The abundance of cheap, addictive drugs coming from nearby Afghanistan is a challenge for authorities. Nearly 3 million Iranians are estimated to be addicted to drugs.

According to Amnesty International, about 90 percent of those on death row are first-time offenders aged between 20-30 years old.

Magdalena Mughrabi, a Director for Amnesty International in the Middle East, said the move should be “just the start” of reform for Iran.

“The Iranian authorities have executed thousands of people for drugs offences, in blatant violation of international law, which restricts the use of the death penalty to the most serious crimes involving intentional killing,” Mughrabi said.

“If implemented properly, this long-overdue reform will spare hundreds from the gallows, but that should be just the start. The Iranian authorities must stop using the death penalty for drug-related offences with a view to eventually abolishing it for all crimes.”

Other organizations, including Iran Human Rights, a non-government organization based in Norway, welcomed the news of the change.

“It is potentially one of the most significant steps to limit the use of the death penalty in the world, which can lead to at least 5,000 people, according to official figures, seeing their death sentences commuted,” group spokesman Mahmood Amiry-Moghaddam said.

“Our concern is that the majority of those on death row belong to the marginalised part of the Iranian society and may not be aware of the changes and not have the possibilities to take this step. Those who are on death row for drug offences must be given legal aid.”

By Sara Shayanian