Shooting up: Iran’s mass executions for drugs offences

I hope (naturally) that I never to go to prison (at least not involuntarily), but if I ever get banged up, I sincerely hope it isn’t in Vakilabad Prison in Mashhad, a city in north-west Iran.

Like a lot of prisons around the world (including ones in the UK), inmates in Vakilabad suffer chronic overcrowding. The prison’s official capacity is 3,000 prisoners. It currently holds 13,000. Never mind doubling (or trebling) up in cells, here inmates are said to sleep on the floor or in hallways. Sometimes there are 100 prisoners queueing for the toilet.

But this isn’t even the worst part. In Vakilabad there are 2,000 prisoners with death sentences. And, as a new Amnesty report shows, the prison authorities have been cutting down prisoner numbers lately with mass executions. Last year a staggering 250 people were apparently executed in Vakilabad (not “official” executions; the Iranian authorities haven’t acknowledged them). As many as 89 of these took place on one day alone – on Wednesday 4 August 2010. The Vakilabad killings have continued this year: at least another 144 prisoners by the middle of September.

These mass executions are literally that – killings carried out en masse. Vakilabad’s executions (by hanging) are apparently carried out in a long passageway between the cells and the visiting room. A long beam has 60 nooses along its length. Sixty prisoners at a time can be brought in, placed on stools, have nooses put around their necks and then left dangling when the stools are kicked away. (Yes, OK, you can probably work out for yourself what happens. But there it is).

The vast majority of these mass hangings are for drugs offences. (Not necessarily of prisoners convicted of drugs offences, but … I’ll come back to this). The basic context here is that Iran has joined the international mania for having a “war on drugs”. Since 1989 it’s had harsh laws making drug trafficking or the possession of large quantities of narcotics punishable by death (there are currently 17 different types of capital drugs offences, including the distribution or possession of 100g of Ecstasy).

True, Iran has a serious drug problem: an estimated two million addicts/users and it’s the world’s largest market for opium and other illegal drugs. But is executing hundreds of drugs traffickers (many very poor, petty criminals) really going to change anything? The evidence, categorically, is that it isn’t. They’re just executing more and more people for drugs offences: 166 in 2009, about 470 in 2010, and at least 488 so far this year – while the prevalence of drugs remains unchanged. (Iran is already the second highest user of the death penalty in the entire world, by the way. Some distinction. The state is, you might say, addicted to death).

Iran isn’t the only country to contravene international law by executing people for drugs offences (some Asia-Pacific countries are notoriously bad for this), but it’s got a particularly toxic formula running through its political-penal veins: secrecy, torture, use of false confessions in trials, no appeals in many capital cases, mandatory death sentences in certain cases (contrary to international law).

Iran is on a major drugs trafficking route from Afghanistan and Pakistan to either African countries or (especially) Western Europe – ie maybe even people in your very own street. This problem isn’t going to go away. The trafficking and sale of drugs, as we know, is a truly massive and highly lucrative international criminal enterprise. But the people who end up dying in places like Vakilabad are mostly poor people who’ve been sucked into small-scale trafficking or, in some cases, people who are almost certainly innocent.

In fact, they are definitely innocent. Why’s that? Because they haven’t even had a trial. It seems that some of the foreign nationals (a lot of Afghans for instance) held on drugs charges in Iran are never brought to trial, are denied any kind of legal or consular assistance, and only find out they’ve even been sentenced to death when the prison authorities tell them (see pp33-34 of the report).

One Afghan man told a reporter from Radio Free Europe: "I have never seen the court, but have been notified that I am on death row. Really, I don't know if that is true or not". Knowing Iran, it might well be.

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