Iran: Prisons turned into killing fields as drug-related executions almost triple this year

Iranian authorities have executed at least 173 people convicted of drug-related offences this year after systematically unfair trials, nearly three times more than this time last year, Amnesty International said.

Executions for drug-related offences make up two-thirds of all the executions carried out in Iran in the first five months of 2023 and have predominantly impacted people from marginalized and economically disadvantaged backgrounds.

Members of Iran’s persecuted and impoverished Baluchi ethnic minority account for around 20 per cent of the recorded executions despite making up only five per cent of Iran’s population.

“The shameless rate at which the authorities are carrying out drug-related executions, in violation of international law, exposes their lack of humanity and flagrant disregard for the right to life. The international community must ensure that cooperation in anti-drug trafficking initiatives do not contribute, directly or indirectly, to the arbitrary deprivation of life and other human rights violations in Iran,” said Diana Eltahawy, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa.

“States and intergovernmental bodies must condemn the Iranian authorities, in the strongest terms, for these arbitrary executions, call for an official moratorium on all executions, send representatives to visit prisoners sentenced to death, and seek attendance at trials involving capital crimes. Given the crisis of impunity for mass arbitrary executions, they must also urgently pursue meaningful pathways for accountability.”

This year, the authorities have also significantly increased the number of overall executions for all crimes, with at least 282 people executed in total so far in 2023 – this is nearly double the number of executions that were recorded at the beginning of June last year. If the authorities continue to carry out overall executions at this alarming pace, they could kill nearly a thousand prisoners by the end of this year.

Deadly war on the poor

It is mostly the poor and vulnerable who are impacted by the death penalty, as they are often unaware of their rights and cannot afford independent legal representation. Families of those executed frequently struggle with the dire economic consequences of losing breadwinners and being heavily indebted from legal fees.

The relative of a prisoner currently on death row who was the breadwinner of her family prior to imprisonment, told Amnesty International:

“She never saw her court-appointed lawyer. He gave the family false promises that he would have her death sentence overturned if they paid him an extortionate amount of money. They sold everything they had to pay him, even their sheep. Once he took their money, he disappeared and left the family with a lot of debt.”

The teenage son of a prisoner executed for drug-related offences told Amnesty International:

“I should be worried about my exams like other children, not going to work. My wages do not cover my family’s necessities because of all the loans we have. I don’t even have the money to cover my school registration for next year. If my father hadn’t been executed, I would be thinking about my future right now, not thinking of how to make money for my family.”

Drug-related executions often follow flawed investigations by Iran’s anti-narcotics police and other security bodies. Trials for drug-related offences are held before Revolutionary Courts and are systematically unfair, with detainees denied due process rights, including access to legal representation and torture-tainted “confessions” used as evidence to convict them.

One death row prisoner told Amnesty International:

“The judges in Revolutionary Courts will ask if the drugs are yours and it makes no difference if you say yes or no. The judge at my trial told me to be quiet when I said the drugs were not mine. He said my sentence was death and ordered me to sign a document accepting it. He didn’t even allow my lawyer to speak in my defence.”

Wider execution spree

The Iranian authorities’ have also been executing prisoners for other acts that should never result in the death penalty under international law.

In the first five months of 2023, five people have been executed in relation to protests, a man was executed for “adultery” for having consensual sexual relations with a married woman, and two social media users were executed for charges including “apostasy” and “insulting the Prophet of Islam”.

Security forces have added to the anguish of prisoners’ families by violently quashing peaceful demonstrations held outside prisons where executions are scheduled, with protesters reporting the use of tear gas and live ammunition.

Amnesty International opposes the death penalty in all cases without exception, regardless of the nature or circumstances of the crime; guilt, innocence or other characteristics of the individual; or the method used by the state to carry out the execution. The death penalty violates the right to life and is the ultimate cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment.