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Iran: Drug Law Amended to Restrict Use of Capital Punishment

(Aug. 31, 2017) After months of debate, Iran’s Majlis (Parliament) has approved a bill that amends its drug-trafficking laws to curtail the application of the death penalty to drug offenders.  (Iran Parliament Softens Drug Death Penalty Laws, ARAB NEWS (Aug. 13, 2017).)  The bill, passed on August 13, 2017, amends article 45 of the Law of 25 October 1988 on Combating Drugs and subsequent amendments, and changes the article number from 45 to 46.  (Amendment to the Law of 25 October 1988 on Combating Drugs (Amendment) art. 45, in Converting the Death Penalty to Imprisonment for Some Drug Crimes, ICANA (Aug. 13, 2017) (in Persian).)  Iran’s “conservative-dominated”  Guardian Council, a body of 12 Islamic jurists, must still approve the bill as being in accordance with Iran’s Constitution and shari‘a (Islamic law) before the bill can become law.  (Iran Parliament Softens Drug Death Penalty Laws, supra; Iran: Raising the Death Penalty Bar, HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH (Aug. 15, 2017).)

Provisions of the Amendment

The Amendment would increase the minimum amounts of illegal drugs that would subject convicted producers and distributors to a death sentence, raising the level of synthetic substances, such as heroin, cocaine, and amphetamines, from 30 grams to two kilos (1.06 ounces to 4.41 pounds) and that of natural substances, such as opium and marijuana, from five kilos to 50 kilos (11.02 pounds to 110.23 pounds).  (Amendment, art. 45(d).)

With regard to sentencing, the punishment for those already sentenced to death or life in prison for drug-related offenses would be commuted to up to 30 years in jail and a fine.  (Id. art. 45 ¶ 1.)  Death sentences would be restricted to those convicted of carrying or drawing weapons, acting as the ringleader, providing financial support, or using minors below the age of 18 or the mentally ill in a drug crime, and to those previously sentenced to death, life imprisonment, or imprisonment for more than 15 years for related crimes.  (Id. art. 45(a)-(c).)

Effect of the Amendment

The likely effect of the Amendment would be to commute sentences for many of the 5,300 inmates currently on death row for drug crimes, 90% of whom are first-time offenders between the ages of 20 and 30.  (Iran Parliament Softens Drug Death Penalty Laws, supra; Majlis Endorses Bill to Restrict Death Penalty for Drug Crimes, FINANCIAL TRIBUNE (Aug. 15, 2017).)  According to the human rights organization Amnesty International, Iran carried out at least 567 executions in 2016, more than any other country except China, and most of those were for drug crimes.  (The Death Penalty in 2016: Facts and Figures, AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL (Apr. 11, 2017); Iran Parliament Softens Drug Death Penalty Laws, supra.)  During a parliamentary debate on the bill, Hassan Norouzi, spokesman for the Majlis Judicial and Legal Commission, stated that more than six million people were involved in drugs in the country, including 5.2 million addicts and 1.8 million users (out of a total population of 82.8 million).  (Iran Parliament Softens Drug Death Penalty Laws, supra; Iran, in Central Intelligence Agency, WORLD FACTBOOK (last visited Aug. 10, 2017).)

Jalil Rahimi Jahanabadi, also a member of the Majlis Judicial and Legal Commission, stated that the original December 2016 draft amendment aimed to outlaw the death penalty for most nonviolent drug-related offenses, but stiff resistance from Iran’s judiciary and the Interior Ministry’s drug-control headquarters, which believed that curbing or eliminating the death penalty for drug crimes would “embolden” criminals, led to a more modest bill that restricted the death penalty to the “production, distribution, trafficking, and selling” of drugs.  (Iran: Raising the Death Penalty Bar, supra.)  At the same time, however, many judges welcomed the amendment, according to Norouzi, and “stayed execution sentences as they awaited the results of the parliamentary debate.”  (Iran Parliament Softens Drug Death Penalty Laws, supra.)

Views on Efficacy of Current Drug Laws

Citing figures that showed the volume of illegal drugs smuggled into Iran had seen about a 24% increase between 2012 and 2015, Norouzi said, “[i]t is crystal clear that the laws in place have had no effect on curbing drug crime.”  (Majlis Endorses Bill to Restrict Death Penalty for Drug Crimes, supra.)  Jahanabadi concurred, stating that “[f]our decades of [the] war on drugs has yielded very little.  Our laws clearly failed to have the desired deterrence effect.  There is a need for an overhaul and this is it.”  (Id.)  Some officials reportedly want to go further and have demanded a review of the death penalty for all drug-related crimes except armed trafficking.  (Id.)

According to Iran’s Financial Tribune, investigations show that most drug dealers “are not the actual smugglers or ringleaders, but are dragged and/or tempted into the crime due to poverty, joblessness and hopelessness.”  (Id.)  Jahanabadi commented that the laws currently in place “target people who, for whatever reason, were forced into the illicit trade. … Poverty pushes people to do anything to provide for their families.  But our laws did not take this into consideration and these people were sentenced to death simply because they were found carrying drugs.”  (Id.)  Jahanabadi welcomed the fact that the new law would enable many now in prison to return to their families.  “In their cases,” he said, “life in prison and the prospect of death will not help anyone.”  (Id.)