In Iran, executions soar amid nuclear plaudits

Friday 31/07/2015
An activist of Civic Face Pakistan holds a photograph of Reyhaneh Jabbari, who was hanged in Iran for murdering a former intelligence officer, during a candle vigil in her memory in Islamabad on October 31, 2014.

London - An Amnesty International report on a “staggering” increase in the number of executions in Iran may be further ammunition for those in the US Congress and elsewhere attacking Tehran’s nucle­ar agreement with the P5+1. How, it asks, can a country executing three people a day “with complete disre­gard for the basic safeguards of due process” be trusted to stick to a dip­lomatic agreement?

According to Amnesty, which opposes capital punishment, Iran executed 694 people from January 1st through July 15th, while thou­sands wait on death row. Execu­tions in Iran are usually by hanging. The most grisly is the occasional practice of hanging people in public from cranes. Strangulation can take up to ten minutes.

The toll of 694, above the official 246, is disputed by Iran. In May, For­eign Ministry spokeswoman Mar­zieh Afkham rejected as a “down­right lie… without any source” an earlier report, from UN Special Rapporteur Christof Heyns, claim­ing 340 executions from January through April. The United Nations put the 2014 total at 753, the highest for 12 years.

Some impute a political motive for increasing executions. In 2014, Ryan Costello and Trita Parsi argued in the journal Foreign Affairs that it reflected a desire among “hardlin­ers” to undermine Iranian President Hassan Rohani by luring him into a political battle that he could not win, over human rights.

In reality, the situation is more complex.

First, while Sadeq Larijani, the judiciary chief, is a political player (and an ambitious, clever man), Iran’s legal system is decentralised and factional.

Second, most executions are linked to drugs. Iran may execute as many traffickers as China, despite a population 6% as big. In 2014, In­terior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli said drug smugglers numbered 80% of those executed, while Harm Reduction International, a non-gov­ernmental organisation (NGO), has confirmed drug offenders are the “large majority”.

Iran is not alone in adopting dra­conian punishments in a “war on drugs”. Saudi Arabia beheads smug­glers of cannabis, a drug whose use is decriminalised in much of Europe and four US states. In Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim na­tion, a military firing squad execut­ed eight convicted drug offenders in April. To Iran’s immediate east is Afghanistan, whose opium har­vests produce 80% of global heroin, according to the Foundation for a Drug-Free World.

Output jumped after the Octo­ber 2001 US invasion overthrew the Taliban, which had been co-operating with the United Nations against poppy cultivation. In recent years, the Taliban has preferred to raise “taxes” on opium to fill its war chest. The 2014 harvest was a re­cord, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime in Kabul.

Iran is a transit route and has also seen growing use. Fazli said last year that 1.3 million Iranians, from a population of 78 million, were addicts of some kind. Seizures in­cluded meth, heroin and cocaine but opium accounted for 77%. Fa­zli defended executing smugglers because “generally, they are armed and violent people who have even committed rape”.

To curb smuggling, Iran has built security fences along the Afghan and Pakistani borders. Smugglers, often with heavier weapons than AK47s, are prepared to battle se­curity forces. In 2010, Janne Bjerre Christensen, a Danish anthropolo­gist, suggested 3,500 Iranian police officers had been killed fighting smugglers since 1979, a total that did not include customs officers and soldiers.

Anecdotally, most Iranians sup­port tough action against crime, especially murder. The case against capital punishment is rarely aired, especially as many clerics regard it as mandatory for certain crimes.

One campaigner against capital punishment, Emadeddin Baghi, has met this head on. He told me in 2007 in Tehran that verse 178 of the Quran’s Baqarah sura envisaged “punishment as a way to guarantee social stability” and therefore “a life sentence can have a better effect”.

A theology student turned jour­nalist, Baghi set up an NGO, the As­sociation for the Right to Life, but his book Right to Life, published in Farsi and Arabic in 2008 and 2009, was banned and he was imprisoned for some months. Baghi, who pre­viously campaigned for prisoners’ rights, has consistently argued that Iran suffers not so much from “au­thoritarian government” as “the lack of a strong civil society”.

This is a hard argument to make anywhere over drugs. In the West, many governments have found that encouraging NGOs, and giving ad­dicts access to clean needles and heroin substitutes, is more effective than severe punishment. Such an approach in Iran seems a long way off.