Iran Is Executing Hundreds For Drug Crimes -- And The U.N. Is Backing Its Anti-Drug Efforts

05/18/2015 07:52 pm ET | Updated May 19, 2015

In the first five months of the year, Iranian authorities may have executed nearly 250 people for drug offenses, according to multiple human rights organizations. That's almost two people a day. And despite the alarming frequency with which alleged drug offenders are being put to death in the country, the United Nations is readying a multimillion-dollar package to continue helping Iranian authorities with their anti-drug efforts -- a move that critics say stands in violation of the U.N.'s own human rights policy.

Of the estimated 347 executions Iran has carried out since the beginning of the year, between 220 and 241 have been of people accused of drug-related violations. Many of those people were low-level and nonviolent drug offenders, the human rights groups say. Drug-related executions appear to be on the rise, with at least 41 -- but possibly as many as 50 -- taking place in April alone, according to data provided to The WorldPost from the groups Amnesty International and Reprieve, as well as the most current public data from Iran Human Rights.

If Iran continues to execute people convicted of drug-related offenses at this rate, the country will by the end of the year have put nearly twice as many people to death for such charges as human rights groups say it did in 2014.

Much of the data on this issue consists of unofficial estimates, because Iranian authorities generally announce far fewer executions than actually take place, the rights groups claim. Iran has only officially acknowledged about 100 executions so far this year, and in 2014, while rights groups counted as many as 753 people put to death in Iran, the state only officially acknowledged 291 executions.

Iran has a long history with the death penalty, especially for drug crimes, and for years it has been a leading executioner in the Middle East and the world. China is believed to be the only country that executes more people than Iran, with most rights groups estimating more than 1,000 total executions in 2014 -- but China keeps its death penalty program shrouded in secrecy, so exact numbers are, again, difficult to come by.

Iran’s draconian Anti-Narcotics Law levies the death penalty against offenders who have been convicted multiple times of planting opium poppies, coca plants or cannabis seeds with the intent to produce drugs. Execution is also imposed after multiple convictions of smuggling more than 5 kg of opium or marijuana into the country, or for buying, possessing, carrying or hiding more than 5 kg of those drugs. Other acts that carry the death penalty include smuggling, dealing, producing, distributing or exporting more than 30 grams of heroin, morphine, cocaine or their derivatives.

In close proximity to Afghanistan and its booming opium supply, Iran has become a key transit route for narcotraffickers moving the crop into Europe and the United States. Iran also has one of the highest drug addiction rates in the world, with opium, meth and heroin among the most popular drugs of choice.

And while Iranian authorities claim that many of the people put to death are involved in organized crime or armed smuggling, human rights groups contend that the country’s judicial system -- which is marred by corruption and a lack of transparency -- frequently targets members of the most marginalized and vulnerable groups in the nation. According to various rights groups, the system is particularly unforgiving toward poor people and ethnic minorities, particularly Afghans, who arrive from countries where employment opportunities are limited and who are sometimes coerced into confessions.

“It is pretty murky exactly what involvement in the drug business a lot of these defendants have,” Elise Auerbach, an Iran specialist for Amnesty International, told The WorldPost.

Faraz Sanei, a researcher with the Middle East and North Africa Division of Human Rights Watch, said these alleged violations of due process, combined with a “very low threshold for drug possession, which may qualify a defendant as a ‘trafficker,’” has raised serious alarm among rights activists. Some activists, he said, suspect that Iranian authorities may be using drug prosecutions in part “to target and execute political dissidents or others who speak out against the government.”

One case that's fanned the flames of those suspicions involves Zahra Bahrami, an Iranian-Dutch woman who was arrested in 2009 for her participation in a protest over that year’s presidential election, which protesters claimed was rigged.

After Bahrami's initial arrest and charges over protesting, she was later charged with possession of large amounts of cocaine and opium -- an offense that is punishable by death in Iran. Human rights groups claimed the drug charges against Bahrami were fabricated, but she was nevertheless executed in 2011, with the state maintaining that she'd been part of an international drug smuggling gang.

In addition to putting adults to death, Iran remains one of the few countries that executes juvenile offenders and executes adults for crimes committed while they were juveniles.

Hamid Ahmadi, 24, is one such adult. According to Amnesty International, Ahmadi is at imminent risk of execution, although his case is currently under judicial review and concerns a crime he was allegedly involved in when he was only 16 years old.

No human rights groups could confirm to The WorldPost that any juvenile offenders have been executed in Iran this year for drugs, but according to an Amnesty International report, Iran executed at least 14 people in 2014 for offenses they allegedly committed as juveniles.

As Iran continues to execute citiziens for drug-related charges, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has offered support to the country to fight drug trafficking. UNODC and Iran are in the final stages of developing a multiyear, multimillion-dollar program aimed at combating the country’s illicit drug trade, The Guardian reported in March. It's a move that Reprieve says is in conflict with the U.N.’s stance on the death penalty, because those funds, Reprieve says, are likely to lead to more arrests -- and some of those arrests will likely lead to hangings.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has said the U.N. opposes the use of capital punishment for drug crimes. The U.N.’s own human rights guidance is clear on the issue as well: “If, following requests for guarantees and high-level political intervention, executions for drug related offences continue, UNODC may have no choice but to employ a temporary freeze or withdrawal of support.”

Still, the U.N. carries on with its anti-drug program in Iran, though it's one of more than 30 countries around the world that put people to death for drug offenses, according to the Lawyers Collective, a human rights group based in India.

“If the UNODC followed its own human rights policy it would have ended funding for Iranian drug raids years ago,” said Dan Dolan, who works with Reprieve’s death penalty team, in an email to The WorldPost. “Instead it is lining up a generous five year funding deal for Iran’s brutal drug police, despite a near doubling in the rate at which Iran is hanging drug offenders. This represents a shameful disregard for human rights on the part of the UNODC, which publicly claims to oppose the death penalty while funding aggressive raids which send drug mules to death row.”

In February, Yury Fedotov, executive director of UNODC, championed what he described as the anti-drug efforts Iran has made over the decades. He added that UNODC and Iran were partnering in the fight against drugs in the region.

"The UNODC and Iran will finalize a five-year anti-drug plan in the next two months," Fedotov said, according to Fars News Agency.

Fedotov also said that UNODC would try to supply Iran with various equipment needed to fight against narcotraffickers -- equipment that the country hasn’t been able to secure for itself due to Western sanctions.

David Dadge, a spokesman for Fedotov, declined to confirm the details of the U.N.’s 2015 anti-drug program with Iran. He did, however, refer The WorldPost to the organization's public documents about the multifaceted anti-narcotic program that the U.N. pursued in Iran between 2011 and 2014.

Dadge declined to confirm the dollar figure of the more recent Iran plan or say whether it's been finalized. The U.N.’s current anti-trafficking program in Iran is due to end in early June, and most human rights groups and other observers expect the new program to be in place by then. Between 2011 and 2014, the U.N. spent roughly $5.5 million to secure Iran's borders and fight drug trafficking in the country. That money came from multiple European partner nations. Dadge declined to name the European nations funding the 2015 program.

“If [international donors] are to avoid direct complicity in grave human rights abuses, donors should make their support to UNODC programs strictly conditional on recipient states abolishing the death penalty for drug offenses," Dolan said.

Earlier this month, two U.N. human rights experts sharply condemned Iran's rising execution tally. They called on the Iranian government to cease executions immediately and fall in line with the U.N.’s 2007 urging that member nations suspend the death penalty.

“When the Iranian government refuses to even acknowledge the full extent of executions which have occurred, it shows a callous disregard for both human dignity and international human rights law,” said Ahmed Shaheed, a U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in Iran, in a statement.

Iran has flatly rejected the allegations of an increase in executions, with Marzieh Afkham, the spokeswoman for Iran’s foreign ministry, calling the U.N. criticism a "downright lie" and claiming that Iran only uses capital punishment for the “most serious crimes, including narcotics trafficking."

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