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Drug-Related Executions and Possibility of Change in Legislation in Iran

23 Apr 17
Drug-Related Executions and Possibility of Change in Legislation in Iran

According to Iran Human Rights' (IHR) annual report on the death penalty in Iran at least 530 people were executed in 2016. With 296 executions Drug offences accounted for the majority of executions in 2016. In 2016, the Iranian Judiciary’s  High Council of Human Rights stated in a report that 93% of all executions are based on drug-related charges. This is not true. Drug offences counted for 48% of executions in 2013, 49% in 2014, 66% in 2015 and 56% in 2016. of those executed were charged for drug offences.

Drug-related executions, and the new legislation proposed by the Iranian Parliament, Majles, will be briefly reviewed in the following sections.

The status of the cooperation between the United Nations Office for Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and Iran in fighting drugs and the ongoing debate inside Iran will be discussed in the next article.


Drug offences count for  more than 50%  of executions in Iran and the majority of the death sentences issued by the Revolutionary Courts. Reports collected by IHR show that those arrested for drug offences are systematically subjected to torture during the weeks after their arrest. Often, they have no access to a lawyer while in detention and by the time the lawyer enters the case they have already “confessed” to the crime. Trials at the Revolutionary Courts are often very short and there is little the lawyer can do. In addition, most of those executed for drug offences belong to marginalized groups in the Iranian society.


This last point has been emphasized by several Iranian officials, including Mohammad Bagher Olfat (picture), one of the deputies of the Head of the Judiciary, who told an Iranian news agency: “It is important to note that the individuals who are being executed are not the main drug traffickers, because the main drug traffickers are not involved in the shipment of drugs. Normally, the drugs are sold cheaply to individuals who do not have sufficient financial income”.


The Current Anti-Narcotics Law and the new bill proposed by Parliament

The current Anti-Narcotics Law requires the death penalty for the fourth conviction for drug-related offences in several instances including: planting opium poppies, coca plants or cannabis seeds with the intent to produce drugs; smuggling more than five kilograms of opium or cannabis into Iran; buying, possessing, carrying or hiding more than five kilograms of opium and the other aforementioned drugs (punishable on third conviction); smuggling into Iran, dealing, producing, distributing and exporting more than 30 grams of heroin, morphine, cocaine or their derivatives.

In December 2015, the official Iranian media announced that 70 members of Iran's Parliament signed a proposal for a change in legislation in order to end the death penalty for drug offences. After the Parliamentary elections in early 2016, the call for a change was followed up and in October 2016 the Iranian media announced that 150 of the 290 members of Parliament (Majlis) has signed the bill. At that time, Deputy Jalil Rahimi-Jahanabadi, a member of the Majlis Legal and Judicial Committee, told the Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA): “In essence, we are proposing to add an amendment to the current law for fighting drugs to say the death penalty would apply only if certain conditions were met, such as carrying and using a gun, or being an international drug kingpin, or having a commuted death sentence and repeating the crime”.

Although the details of the new proposal have not been published, based on the information in the Iranian media if the new bill is approved the death penalty will be removed for some drug offences unless offenders were armed while carrying drugs or if they had been imprisoned for more than 10 years if the case is related to organized crime, or in cases where larger amount of drugs are involved.

However, it is not clear whether the new bill will be approved by the powerful Guardian Council which has to approve all new laws. It is not clear either where the Expediency Council stands in this matter. Iran’s Expediency Council has amended the country’s anti-drug-trafficking law several times: in 1988, 1994 and 2001. The last amendment decreed that being in the possession of more than 30 grams of crystal meth was the same as the possession of heroin, and was punishable by the death penalty.  The Judiciary has also sent mixed signals regarding the new bill. In October 2016, Ayatollah Sadegh Amoli-Larijani told the Iranian media that: "Executions are not necessarily desirable, but narcotics are a great detriment to society and also shatter families. We have no choice but to confront the issue quickly, swiftly, firmly, and decisively. We want prosecutors in the country not to hesitate in implementing the (death) sentences," said Amoli Larijani. "We should not wait three years (before carrying out the execution sentences), until the prisoner learns how to pray in order to get amnesty...It is offensive to say that the death penalty is ineffective. If it wasn't for the strictness of the Judiciary, the situation would be much worse."

In addition, even if the bill is passed and approved there is no guarantee that it will lead to a significant reduction in the number of drug-related executions. The bill doesn’t address the issue of due process at all. As mentioned earlier in this section, lack of due process is probably the biggest reason for the high number of drug-related executions in Iran as large number of the death sentences for drug charges are solely based on confessions extracted under torture.

Another factor determining the fate of Iran’s drug-related death penalty policy is the international pressure. So, international pressure from Iran’s dialogue partners, EU in particular, must be even more focused on the issue of the death penalty and specific demands must be raised with regards to the issue of due process and the dissolving of the Revolutionary Courts.

Drug-related Executions

At least 296 people were executed for drug-related charges in 2016. This counts for more 56% of all executions carried out in that year. The number is lower than the annual executions for drug offences in the last six years. But as mentioned in previous sections, there is no indication that the relative reduction is due to a change in Iran’s death penalty policy. In the following sections we will set out the execution trends and geographic distribution of drug-related executions. Finally, we will provide an update on the cooperation between the United Nations’ Office for Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and the Iranian authorities in fighting drug trafficking.


More than 2,990 people were executed for drug offences between 2010 and 2016. The numbers for 2016 are lower than the average of the last six years. However, Iran remains the country with the highest number of drug-related execution per capita. *The number for 2015 is updated due to confirmation of three new execution cases in that year.

Geographic Distribution of Drug-related Executions in 2016

The geographical distribution of drug-related executions is visualized in the map above. More details are provided in the diagram below.

The prisons of Karaj, in particular Ghezelhesar, where prisoners from Tehran/Karaj area are held, had the highest number of drug-related executions. The most significant decrease compared to 2015, was also observed in the prisons of Karaj. In 2015 at least 231 people were executed in the prisons of Karaj. As in the previous year, the Central Prison of Urmia (northwestern border) also had a high number of drug-related executions. Most of the executions were not announced by the official media.