In Iran, executions soar amid nuclear plaudits
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.