Thousands to escape hanging for new drug law in Iran

Saturday, 13 Jan, 2018

Iran has lifted the death penalty for certain non-violent drug offences, relaxing some of the world's harshest laws on drug crimes and likely sparing the lives of thousands of death row inmates.

Capital punishment has been abolished for some drug offences, and the head of the judiciary has said all cases on death row can be reviewed.

The change in law is set to apply retroactively, meaning that up to 5,000 prisoners could evade execution after Ayatollah Sadeq Larijani asked officials to halt executions of those affected by the new amendments.

Iran is second to China in the number of prisoners executed in recent years - killing 500 people in 2017 alone, mostly for drug offenses, and 10,000 people since 1998. "Those who are on death row for drug offences must be given legal aid".

Under the previous law, possessing 30g of cocaine would trigger the death penalty but that has been increased to 2kg (4.4lb). The country's parliament increased death penalty thresholds on opium and marijuana tenfold to 50 kilograms, or 110 pounds.

Saleh Nikbakht, an Iranian human rights lawyer, said that by making the new law retroactive, Iranian authorities could spare the lives of thousands.

Mahmood Amiry-Moghaddam, from Iran Human Rights, an independent nongovernmental organization based in Norway, told BBC News the change is a move in the right direction.

But he expressed concern that those on death row might not be able to take advantage.

Most convicts will see their death sentences commuted to jail terms of between 25 to 30 years, he said. "The Iranian authorities must stop using the death penalty for drug-related offences with a view to eventually abolishing it for all crimes". A high-ranking Iranian official has stated that since 1988 Iran has put to death some 10,000 people for drug-related offences. "About 90% of them are first-time offenders aged between 20 and 30 years old".

A spokesman for the judiciary committee of Iran's Parliament, Hasan Nourouzi, told the Jam-e-Jam daily newspaper that violent drug offenders - including those who had committed murder during drug crimes - would still be subject to the death penalty if convicted.

In 2016, Iran's then justice minister said he was looking for an "effective punishment" for criminals instead of execution.