Riding roughshod over the rule of law and the right to life may be effective, but Iran’s killing spree violates international law
The Iranian regime won high praise last month from Yuri Fedotov, executive director of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime. Iran had “one of the world’s strongest counter-narcotics responses”, he said, and its good practices “deserve the acknowledgement of the international community”.
His remarks came a little more than two weeks after Iran’s state media announced that 13 drug traffickers had been executed in Mashhad’s Vakilabad prison since 21 March. In May, the judiciary announced that at least 300 more were on death row for drug-related offences.
So far this year, official Iranian sources have reported more than 100 of these executions. Iranian and international human rights groups fear the numbers are much higher.
If retributive justice is the sole hallmark of a “strong” anti-narcotics response, Fedotov’s words are spot on. Last year, Iranian authorities signalled plans to intensify prosecutions for drug crimes. They amended the anti-narcotics law, which already imposed corporal punishment for less serious drug crimes and the death penalty for trafficking, possession or trade of more than 5kg of opium, 30g of heroin or morphine (and repeated offences involving smaller amounts) or the manufacture of more than 50g of synthetic drugs such as methamphetamines a capital offence.
Last October, prosecutor general Gholam-Hossein Mohseni-Ejei announced that his office would review some drug-related cases in the interests of fast-tracking them through the courts. That meant some death sentences for drug-related crimes were no longer subject to appeal in the supreme court.
These draconian measures, many of which violate fundamental rights under international law, initiated a staggering wave of executions. Human Rights Watch believes that many of those executed may have had unfair trials, with little or no legal representation. There is also credible evidence that the authorities executed groups of convicted drug offenders without notifying their families or lawyers.
It is against this reality that Fedotov hailed Iran’s anti-drug campaign, and called on the international community to “follow suit”.
To be sure, Iran plays a critical and strategic role in the international “war on drugs”. The UN anti-drug agency says that Iran, which borders Afghanistan and Pakistan and is located along major drug smuggling routes, intercepts more illegal opium and heroin/morphine drug shipments than any other country – 89% of the opium shipments seized worldwide and 41% of heroin/morphine shipments.
The human cost of Iran’s war on drugs has been extremely high. Over the past 30 years, 3,700 police officers have been killed and tens of thousands injured in anti-narcotics operations, according to the UN agency. With 1.2 million drug-dependent users, Iran also has one of the world’s most severe addiction problems, the agency says. Its figures show that drug addiction and HIV rates have soared in recent years, with injecting drug users accounting for almost 70% of the country’s 22,000 detected HIV cases.
In praising Iran’s “strong” anti-narcotics response, Fedotov focused on Iran’s seemingly effective supply-and-demand reduction programmes, including innovative treatment and rehabilitation measures for more than 150,000 people in communities and prisons.
Yet he said nothing, publicly at least, about the other human tragedy that is unfolding – the dozens of prisoners Iran has hanged and unceremoniously buried following flawed trials, or the hundreds of others who await a similar fate. The silence is especially puzzling since the UN agency opposes the death penalty for drug-related offences.
Under article 6(2) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Iran has ratified, the death penalty may be applied only to the “most serious crimes”. The UN Human Rights Committee has said that drug offences do not constitute “most serious crimes”, and that use of the death penalty for drug offences violates international law. Human Rights Watch opposes capital punishment in all circumstances and has specifically stated its opposition to the death penalty for drug crimes.
In March, as Iran was ramping up its executions, the UN drug agency adopted a multilateral technical co-operation programme “to support national efforts on drugs and crime by promoting United Nations standards and international best practices”. The European commission, European Union member states and several other governments including Japan, Norway, Australia and Canada, provide money, technical assistance and legislative support to Iran under the programme. Rights groups have raised serious concerns that the assistance may play a part, direct or indirect, in Iran’s human rights violations.
At the very least, Fedotov and his agency should set the record straight on Iran’s abysmal anti-narcotics record when it comes to the rule of law, the administration of justice, freedom from torture and ill-treatment and the right to life.
They should also demand accountability for these rights violations and take measures to ensure that in assisting Iran’s anti-drug measures they are not complicit in violations carried out in the name of a “strong” anti-narcotics response. Failure to do so, as Iranian authorities continue their killing spree, would be reckless and irresponsible.