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Ghezel Hesar prison is approximately eight kilometers southwest of Rajai Shahr in the city of Karaj. It is considered one of the largest prisons in the Middle East. The overwhelming majority of prisoners held in this detention facility are believed to have been convicted by courts on drug trafficking charges. 

(Beirut) – The Iranian authorities should approve proposed drug law amendments to end the use of the death penalty for all nonviolent drug offenses. The authorities should also investigate and bring to justice those responsible for abuses of prisoners held on drug charges.

In interviews in March and November 2015, with eight prisoners on death row or awaiting sentencing on drug-related charges that carry the death penalty, Human Rights Watch documented serious due process and other violations. The interviewees are among more than 2,000 people held in a unit of Ghezel Hesar prison, most of whom have been sentenced to death on drug charges.

“Alleged drug offenders face egregious violations of their rights, beginning with the moment authorities make drug arrests on dubious legal grounds,” said Eric Goldstein, deputy Middle East director. “Packing death row with drug offenders won’t solve Iran’s drug problem.”

Prisoners told Human Rights Watch that agents of the Department for Combating Drugs routinely blindfold and beat detainees and force them to sign confessions. The prisoners also said that authorities refuse to show the accused the evidence against them. Instead, some said, court interrogators and judges said that their rulings are based on “intuition.”

Court-appointed lawyers are not allowed to be present during interrogations or to meet privately with their clients, the prisoners said. During court hearings, defense lawyers are only allowed to submit written statements, rather than to present oral arguments.

The semi-official Iranian news agency, ISNA, reported that Mir-Hadi Gharaseyyed Romiani, a member of parliament, announced on December 8 that he and other members had submitted a proposal to eliminate the death penalty for drug offenses, except for armed smuggling. Romiani also told the parliament’s official news agency, the Islamic Consultative Assembly News Agency, that more than 70 members of the 290-seat body had signed onto the plan. The parliament’s Legal and Judicial Committee will review the proposed plan before it can move forward.

Iran’s anti-drug law, under amendments that went into effect in 2011, expanded the offenses that could carry the death penalty, including possession of more than 30 grams of synthetic drugs like methamphetamines. Previously, the law mandated the death penalty for trafficking, possession, or trade of more than five kilograms of opium; 30 grams of heroin or morphine; repeated offenses involving smaller amounts; or the manufacture of more than 50 grams of synthetic drugs. The law also allows for corporal punishment in the case of less serious drug crimes.

According to the October 2015 report of the United Nations special rapporteur on human rights in Iran, at least 69 percent of executions during the first six months of 2015 were for drug-related offenses. Iran executed at least 830 people between January 1 and November 1.

Under article 6(2) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Iran has ratified, in states that still retain capital punishment, the death penalty may be applied only for the “most serious crimes.” The UN Human Rights Committee, which interprets the covenant, has said that drug offenses do not constitute “most serious crimes,” and that the use of the death penalty for such crimes violates international law. Human Rights Watch opposes capital punishment in all circumstances because it is inherently irreversible and inhumane.

“Iran clearly needs to address the serious problem of torture in its law enforcement and prison systems,” Goldstein said. “And Iran’s courts should replace judicial ‘intuition’ with due process.”

Accounts from Death Row Prisoners

Bahman (pseudonym), awaiting sentence on offenses carrying the death penalty; November 16, 2015; Ghezel Hesar prison, Karaj:

I’ve been in temporary detention for five years now, in a legal limbo. It’s me and eight other defendants in this case and none of us were somewhere where there were drugs. None of us have a criminal record either. One day a few friends and I went to see a place in Karaj. We were there about an hour and a half. I’m in construction work, so we’d gone to see this building to figure out if we could renovate it.

Then some officers bust in and told us “Stop! Stop! Lay on the ground!” Then they handcuffed us. I asked, “What are you doing?” They told us that someone had died there and they wanted to ask if we knew the person. I said, “This is the first time I’ve been in this area; how I am I supposed to identify the dead person?” They said, “We’ll take you to another house and you’ll figure everything out there.” Then they just transferred us straight to the drug units and we’ve been here five years. No matter how much we protest that there “is no [drug issue involved],” they say “Yes, there is.” They never even showed us IDs or a warrant when they arrested us.

Mehrdad (pseudonym), sentenced to death; November 16, 2015; Ghezel Hesar prison, Karaj:

I swear to God I was beaten for an entire week. They throw you in some basement and just beat you. Nobody could hear us. Just a week of being beaten in the Tehran Department for Combating Drugs. They would handcuff our hands and feet to the chairs and beat us on our head and feet with a cable. They’d hang us [from the ceiling]. They would do things to you that make you just say, “Yes, ok, it was my [drugs].”

But I am innocent. Those drugs were not mine. I said so from the first day and fingerprinted my statement. But they still say I am involved in drugs. I am not alone. I have a wife and a kid on the outside. A mother and a sister. If it were just me alone in prison, I would have hanged myself. I wouldn’t have let them take me to the hanging scaffold. It’s easy, I would just pour some meth in water and drink it all up. A lot of people have been doing that lately in the prisons. I can say about five to six people a month are dying in prison like this. Whenever people kill themselves like this the authorities say it was just an addict who died from withdrawal.

They just took us to court once, as well as one session for interrogation. The interrogator saw us and said, “What happened?” And I said, “You are the ones who arrested me. Let me have a face to face session with the agent [so we can talk about] where and how you arrested me. The interrogator said what the [Tehran Department for Combating] Drugs tells me is enough, I accept whatever our agents have told me. Then he just wrote it down and sent us to the judge. The judge was holding the indictment written by the interrogator. I asked him, “Why aren’t you asking me any questions?”

Behnam, (pseudonym), awaiting sentence on offenses carrying the death penalty; interviewed March 27, 2015; Ghezel Hesar prison, Karaj:

I don’t have a criminal record. They didn’t even find one gram of drugs on me. I’m just here based on the confessions of some other guy who was accused. In 2012, I was just sitting in my store and they came and arrested me. I’m not saying I’m innocent. Let’s say I am guilty. But I never sold anything to the guy who accused me in his confession.

In this unit of Ghazal Hesar alone there are 2,000 inmates and they are all on death row, for anything from [possessing] 100 grams to 100 kilograms…. While the guy with the drugs on him just gets charged with possession – just possession of like, five kilograms of meth. They ask the guy they’ve arrested, “Who did you get this from?” and then they come after a guy like me.

I was not tortured. They put me under pressure but I never confessed…. I have a lawyer, but lawyers in drug cases are a joke. I’m sorry to say that. But the lawyers can’t do anything.”

Matin (pseudonym), sentenced to death; March 27, 2015; Ghezel Hesar prison, Karaj:

The first week we were just beaten. I was not even asked one question. The second week they told us we had to sign something. I said, “How can I sign? I haven’t done anything.” They said, “No, it seems like you still haven’t understood.” Just like that. It was all beatings and insults. So I finally just fingerprinted a statement they gave me and that is how I ended up with the death penalty later on.

He said that the interrogator told him he was free to go but that officials instead took him to court the next day and added his name to a list of defendants in a drug case.

The interrogator [who had accompanied me to the court] said, “But his name is not part of this case.” [The court officials] told him to just do what they said. So my name got added and I was taken to Tehran. In Tehran, they took me to a basement where I was tortured. I was blindfolded and my feet and hands were cuffed…. Each time they took us to the interrogator during the second week of our incarceration we were so terrified we thought we were going to pass out. We would be blindfolded so we couldn’t see the officer...

After being in detention for 55 days without my family knowing where I was, my wife was able to figure out through a lawyer she knew that I was being held by the revolutionary court. My first phone call with the outside was after four months in detention. It took two years and eight months before I received my sentence…

There is no such thing as a lawyer in drug cases. Lawyers are just a useless formality. My lawyer was appointed, not chosen. But you pay two hundred or three hundred thousand tumans (about $100) for a lawyer who is not even allowed to speak. It’s only when you go to receive your sentence that the lawyer shows up. In the court they ask if you have a lawyer and when you say “No,” they say, “Okay, we will get a lawyer for you.” The lawyer never meets with us and just reads our file. You don’t see or know the lawyer. In the court, the lawyer asks four questions and puts some document in your file. Then he comes and tells you, “I’m your lawyer and I defended you as best I could,” when in fact he hasn’t said anything…. The court doesn’t have any evidence to show why we were convicted. There is something here called the “judge’s intuition.”

Afshin (pseudonym), sentenced to death; March 13, 2015; Ghezel Hesar prison, Karaj:

For 20 days, the people from the Department for Combating Drugs beat us day and night in some basement. Our families didn’t know where we were and they wouldn’t let us call... When we were in temporary detention we didn’t have contact with anyone. For three months I wasn’t allowed visits or telephone calls…. I didn’t confess. The interrogator said based on my own intuition, you are guilty.

My court trial took four sessions. Twice I was interrogated [outside the courtroom] and twice before the judge. Each session lasted no more than five minutes. And then I was in legal limbo for two years until they gave me a death sentence. They wouldn’t let us talk in court. They would just read the agent’s report [or say they know things] based on intuition.”

Amin (pseudonym), sentenced to death; March 7, 2015; Ghezel Hesar prison, Karaj:

When they take you for questioning, they hit you all over with sticks and cables. They are not humans. During interrogation they would take us one by one blindfolded to some basement. First they would hit, then ask the question. They wouldn’t write down your answer but just write whatever they wanted and force you to fingerprint it. If you didn’t want to they would take your hand and make you do it….

The lawyer only comes before the judge. You don’t get a lawyer during the initial questioning or during the official interrogations. They don’t even let the lawyer in. When you get to the judge, the lawyer still can’t say anything. They don’t let you defend yourself. They weave the story and write it, that’s it. The last thing that the judge in our case told us was “God help you. I can’t help you.” The court was closed. I’ve been here three years and they’ve killed 300-350 people.... This year (2014/15) they’ve sped up the executions.”

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