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Iran: 853 people executed last year after surge in use of death penalty in drugs cases

New report shows Iranian authorities also used executions to tighten grip on power after 2022’s mass protests

Feared Revolutionary Courts handed down nearly two-thirds of death sentences

Five child offenders among these executed

‘Without a robust global response, the Iranian authorities will feel emboldened to execute thousands more people in the coming years’ - Diana Eltahawy

The Iranian authorities executed at least 853 people last year, the highest number for eight years, said Amnesty International in a new report today, describing the surge in executions as horrifying with Iranian prisons transformed into sites of mass killings.

Amnesty believes the Iranian authorities used the death penalty partly to instil fear among the population and tighten their grip on power in the aftermath of the “Woman Life Freedom” uprising of 2022.

Iran’s killing spree has continued this year, with at least 95 recorded executions by 20 March, though the execution numbers recorded by Amnesty are minimum figures and the organisation believes the real number is higher. The number of executions last year was the highest recorded in Iran since 2015, marking a 48% increase from 2022 and a 172% increase from 2021. 

Amnesty’s 35-page report, ‘Don’t Let Them Kill Us’: Iran’s Relentless Execution Crisis since 2022 Uprising, shows that at least 481 executions last year - more than half the overall number - were for drug-related offences. Amnesty is extremely concerned at the disproportionate impact of the authorities’ lethal anti-narcotics policies on poor and marginalised communities in the country.

Last year also saw a wave of executions targeting protesters, social media users and other actual or perceived dissidents, on charges which included “insulting the prophet” and “apostasy” as well as vague charges of “enmity against God” and/or “corruption on earth”.

Revolutionary Courts issued 520 of the death sentences carried out last year, nearly two-thirds (61%) of all death sentences. These courts have jurisdiction over a wide range of acts, including drug-related offences, which the authorities consider “national security” crimes. The courts lack independence, operate under the influence of the country’s security and intelligence bodies, and routinely use torture-tainted forced “confessions” in grossly unfair summary trials to hand down convictions. 

The rise in executions has led to prisoners on death row in Iran going on hunger strike and publicly pleading for interventions to stop their executions. Last May, several days prior to their executions after grossly unfair trials, protesters Majid Kazemi, Saleh Mirhashemi and Saeed Yaghoubi smuggled a note out of prison pleading for help, saying “Please don’t let them kill us”. This year, on 28 January, another group of death row prisoners wrote an open letter announcing their hunger strike and asking for support to save their lives: “Perhaps with your help, these executions can be stopped. In whatever way you can, please be our voice”.

The Iranian authorities refuse to provide public statistics on death sentences and executions, and Amnesty worked closely with the human rights group the Abdorrahman Boroumand Centre to establish the figures in its report, while also drawing from open sources, including reports by state media, independent media and human rights organisations. Amnesty also reviewed the execution logs of Iran Human Rights and the Kurdistan Human Rights Network.

Diana Eltahawy, Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Deputy Director, said:

“The death penalty is abhorrent in all circumstances but deploying it on a mass scale for drug-related offences after grossly unfair trials before Revolutionary Courts is a grotesque abuse of power.

“The Islamic Republic’s deadly anti-narcotics policies are contributing to a cycle of ‎poverty and systemic injustice, and further entrenching ‎discrimination against marginalised communities, in particular Iran’s oppressed Baluchi minority.

“Protesters, dissidents and members of oppressed ethnic minorities are among those executed as the authorities have weaponised the death penalty in an orchestrated bid to sow fear among the public and suppress dissent. 

“Without a robust global response, the Iranian authorities will feel emboldened to execute thousands more people in the coming years with total impunity.

“Our shocking findings on the Iranian authorities’ ongoing assault on the right to life underscore the urgent need for the international community to press the Iranian authorities for an immediate moratorium on all executions.” 

Staggering increase in drug-related executions

The spike in executions in 2023 was driven largely by a distressing lethal shift in Iran’s anti-narcotics policy after Ebrahim Raisi’s rise to the presidency and the appointment of Gholamhossein Eje’i as the head of the judiciary, both of which occurred in 2021.

Amnesty has analysed official statements from executive and judicial authorities which have publicly criticised reforms made in 2017 to the country’s Anti-Narcotics Law, which led to a dramatic decline in drug-related executions between 2018 and 2020. These statements have invariably called for the increased use of the death penalty to combat drug-trafficking. There has been an upward trajectory since 2021, with 132 people executed for drug-related offences in 2021, 255 in 2022 and 482 in 2023.

Iran’s Baluchi minority accounted for approaching a third (29%) (138) of drug-related executions in 2023, though constituting only about 5% of Iran’s population. People executed of drug-related offences were often put to death in secret without prior notice given to their families or lawyers. Without urgent action from the international community, drug-related executions will continue to rise, amid ongoing efforts by the judiciary, legislative and executive branches to enact a new lethal anti-narcotics law which, if adopted, would expand the range of drug charges incurring the death penalty. 

Executions as a tool of political oppression  

Throughout last year, the Iranian authorities intensified their use of the death penalty as a weapon to quash dissent in the aftermath of the mass women’s rights protests of September-December 2022. The authorities executed six men in connection with the 2022 uprising and one man in connection with the November 2019 nationwide protests. At least a further seven people have been sentenced to death and are at imminent risk of execution in connection to the 2022 uprising and the November 2019 protests.

Executions of those arrested as children

Last year also marked a shocking escalation in the use of the death penalty against child offenders, with the executions of a 17-year-old boy and four youths convicted of crimes that took place when they were under 18 years old. Hamidreza Azari was arrested when he was just 16 years old and executed less than seven months later after a grossly unfair trial that was expedited by the prosecution authorities. The Iranian authorities shamelessly misrepresented his age as 18 in domestic media to evade accountability for violating international law which prohibits the imposition of death sentences on people under 18 at the time of the crime. In recent months, the authorities have misleadingly promoted a new directive from the head of the judiciary as a step towards “a further reduction” in death sentences against child offenders. However, Amnesty’s analysis reveals that the directive fails to address long-standing inherent flaws in juvenile laws, and reaffirms the discretion granted to judges to sentence child offenders to death following flawed “maturity assessments”. Amnesty has repeatedly urged the Iranian authorities to amend Article 91 of the Islamic penal code to abolish the death penalty for crimes committed by children in all circumstances.

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