World News

Iran Eases Death Penalty for Drug Crimes, Saving Potentially Thousands of Lives

Posted January 10, 2018 1:16 p.m. EST

TEHRAN, Iran — Iranians sentenced to death for drug-related crimes have had their convictions suspended by the country’s hard-line judiciary, a move that activists say could save potentially 5,000 lives.

The decision, part of a legal overhaul in the works since 2016, is aimed at reducing the number of executions in the country. Iran is second only to China in its number of executions, and the majority who receive death sentences have been convicted of drug-related crimes.

Iran’s Parliament amended the country’s drug laws last fall, removing the death sentence for a number of drug-related crimes and replacing it with life imprisonment or fines. Around 5,000 people are currently awaiting execution in Iran for such crimes, activists say.

On Tuesday, the head of the judiciary, Sadegh Amoli Larijani, announced that anyone awaiting execution for such crimes was entitled to have his or her case fully re-examined. The move has also been approved by the Guardian Council.

Campaigners called the overhaul of the capital punishment system an important and significant shift. “This is a very positive step, and I welcome it,” Nasrin Sotoudeh, a human rights lawyer and activist, said Wednesday, calling it “a major change.”

Iran’s Islamic Shariah law stipulates capital punishment for a wide range of crimes, including murder, rape, child molestation, sodomy and drug trafficking. The overhaul, which comes amid both domestic and international pressure, is remarkable as the country’s hard-line dominated judiciary in most cases does not amend laws it considers crucial, such as the one for capital punishment.

The number of executions in Iran had already dropped 42 percent in 2016, according to Amnesty International, from 977 to 567.

Based on the new amendment, only those distributing more than 50 kilograms of narcotics like opium, 2 kilograms of heroin or 3 kilograms of crystal meth will be sentenced to death. There is no capital punishment for marijuana possession. Before the reform, possessing 5 kilograms of opium or 30 grams of heroin was a capital offense.

Sotoudeh, the activist, said she was concerned, however, that individual judges might try to circumvent the new law.

“For example in 2013 it was approved that criminals under 18 cannot be executed unless the judge can verify the maturity of mind of the convicted, but my client, Ali Reza Tajik was executed in Shiraz although he was minor with no maturity in mind,” she said. “So we must be vigilant that the new law is implemented thoroughly.”

Iran’s Drug Control Headquarters spoke out against the new legislation, warning it would cause a surge in drug-related crime. Drug abuse is common in Iran, where the youth unemployment rate is over 40 percent.