Will the U.S. Finally End the Death Penalty?

In the past, abolition efforts have faced a backlash—but Gavin Newsom’s moratorium may be different.
The American death penalty is extraordinarily fragile, with death sentences and executions on the decline. Public support for the death penalty has diminished. The practice is increasingly marginalized around the world. California, with its disproportionately large share of American death-row inmates, announces an end to the death penalty. The year? 1972. That’s when the California Supreme Court declared the death penalty inconsistent with the state’s constitutional prohibition of cruel or unusual punishments—only to have the death penalty restored a year later through popular initiative and legislation.
On Wednesday, again, California walked back its commitment to the death penalty. Though not full-fledged abolition, Governor Gavin Newsom declared a moratorium on capital punishment lasting as long as his tenure in office, insisting that the California death penalty has been an “abject…

Iran Execution Trends Six Months After the New Anti-Narcotics Law

Iran executions
IRAN HUMAN RIGHTS (MAY 28, 2018): On Monday, May 10, 2018, Iran Human Rights (IHR) reported the execution of Kiomars Nasouhi, a prisoner sentenced to death for drug offenses. This execution is the first drug-related execution registered by IHR since the latest amendment to the Anti-Narcotics Law was enforced on November 14, 2017.

According to reports by IHR, at least 77 people, among them three juvenile offenders have been executed between January 1. and May 20, 2018. Four were hanged in public spaces. Of the reported executions 62 were sentenced to death for murder, seven for Moharebeh (being an “enemy of God”), seven for rape, and 1 for drug offenses. For comparison, it is reported that during the same period in 2017, at least 203 people were executed, 112 were executed for drug offenses. The significant reduction in the number of executions in 2018 seems to be due to a temporary halt in drug-related executions as the number of executions for murder charges were nearly the same as in 2017.

IHR has not received any execution reports related to drug offenses from the enforcement of the new amendments to the Anti-Narcotic Law on November 14, 2017, until May 10, 2018. The occurrence of the first death sentence for drug offenses may indicate that review of death sentences for drug offenses has been finalized at least in some provinces of the country.

The present report shows that the process of reviewing the cases of those sentenced to death for drug offenses has resulted in the commuting of many death sentences. Although these numbers may seem positive, there are still concerns that need to be addressed. Commenting on this report, Mahmood Amiry-Moghaddam, the spokesperson of IHR said: “We welcome the significant reduction in the use of the death penalty and hope that this trend will continue towards complete abolition. However, we have several serious concerns regarding the process of implementation of the new amendment [to the Anti-Narcotics Law] including bribery in the Judicial system, insufficient capacity to handle a large number of cases, and lack of a monitoring organ overlooking the process.” He continued: “Several thousand lives are at stake and we, therefore, call for an international commission monitoring this process. We demand that the review also include the question of due process. For instance, did the prisoners have access to a lawyer after their arrest and were the prisoners subjected to torture to give confessions?” 


The new amendment to Iranian Anti-drug law which was enforced on November 14, 2017, includes a mechanism to limit the use of the death penalty and reduce the sentences of those sentenced to death or life imprisonment. 

According to the amendment, the minimum possession of drugs, including their production or distribution, which results in a death sentence, has been changed from 30 grams to 2 kilograms for industrial narcotics, e.g., heroin, cocaine, and amphetamines, and from 5 to 50 kilograms for traditional drugs such as opium and hashish.  

According to the law, the punishments of those who were already sentenced to death or life imprisonment will be reduced to imprisonment plus mulct (fine).

Public hanging in Mianeh, Iran, in August 2014
The amendment specifies that the death penalty should be limited to those who have been carrying or have used weapons while trafficking, sponsoring or organizing narco gangs and inducting children under the age of 18 or people with intellectual disabilities into such gangs. Those with a prior prison term of more than 15 years would also be excluded from the commutations under the amendment.

The amendment was the outcome of a lengthy process of discussions between the Parliament and the judiciary, and between the Parliament and the Guardian Council, and was eventually enforced on November 14, 2017. At the same time, the spokesman for the Parliament's judicial and legal committee, Hassan Nowroozi, who was one of the main MPs behind the adoption of this law in Iranian Parliament, said: "There are currently about 5300 prisoners sentenced to death for drug-related crimes. 90% Of those people did not have any criminal records, and their age range is between 20 and 30."

"This means that," he argued, "the new amendment to the Anti-Narcotics Law could potentially save more than 4,700 lives. Thus, if this law is implemented properly, we will witness one of the most important measures to reduce the use of the death penalty in recent years."

Explaining the necessity for adoption of this law, Vice-chairman of the Parliament's Legal and Judicial Commission, Yahya Kamalipour, said on October 30, 2017, that 90% of drug abusers in recent years have been forced into drug trafficking because of poverty: "Being a judge and judicature chief for 20 years, I am well aware of the conditions of the prisoners and their families. 90% of those who were executed in past years, were just carriers of the drugs to earn some money, for instance, to afford the daughter’s wedding expenses or to pay for their mother’s surgery bill. They even did it for a million Tomans (around 140 USD), and were eventually sentenced to death for this amount."

Interviews with the prisoners and their families

The report examines the status of a case study of prisoners sentenced to death or life imprisonment related to narcotics over the past six months following the implementation of the new anti-narcotics law. The report is based on interviews conducted by IHR researchers with several prisoners sentenced to death for drug offenses in five different prisons, or their families. The report provides a brief overview of some of the interviews that refer to the process of reviewing the cases that are subject to the new law:

Some judicial authorities take bribes to process the cases more quickly

The families of some prisoners who are sentenced to death or life imprisonment for drug-related crimes told IHR that the issue of reviewing the cases of these prisoners began in early December 2017. However, most families complained about the slowness of the process. Some also believed that there was no proper order and equality in reviewing the cases, and some reported that judicial authorities were asking for bribes to prosecute cases more quickly. Reports on the reaffirmation of the death penalty for some prisoners have also been reported to the IHR.

The family of a death row prisoner in the Urmia Central Prison claimed: "The case of prisoners sentenced to death in Urmia goes well, and most of the death sentences have been commuted [to prison terms]. Only Branch [...] of the Urmia Revolutionary Court headed by the judge [...] approved the death sentence for several cases, because the judge asked the family of the prisoners to pay bribes, and they did not pay. Now, the families of the prisoners who have been sentenced to death do not know what they can do and whether they have the right to object?”

The source continued: “Our prisoner’s sentence changed from execution to 30 years of imprisonment plus 200 million tomans fine.”

"In the judge's room, there were folders of the cases from floor to the ceiling."

Watching a public hanging in Iran
"My brother was sentenced to death before the implementation of the new law. Fortunately, the Supreme Court did not endorse the verdict, and his case was returned to the Revolutionary Court for review,” a family member of another prisoner in Tehran said, “when I went to visit the judge, he said that the courts are very busy reviewing the cases.”

The interviewee continued, “I begged the judge to handle my brother's case as soon as possible, and he said that he is going to handle the cases on the basis of quantity (of the drugs). Therefore, he is currently reviewing cases that have 70 grams of drugs and reaching my brother in the meantime.”

The eyewitness told IHR that in the judge’s room there were folders of the cases from floor to the ceiling.

He also said that “prisoners who were sentenced to death before, usually receive the new verdict including 30 years term in prison and 200 million tomans in fines. Those who were convicted to life imprisonment previously, typically get 15 years jail term. One of our neighbors who was sentenced to death was released recently after 11 years in prison. However, there are cases of bribery and other violations of law which are normal in the Revolutionary Courts.”

One of the prisoners who was sentenced to death in Tehran's Revolutionary Court in this regard told IHR: “In January, my case was sent to Branch 28 where my death sentence was issued before, but I haven’t heard from them yet. Judge Moghiseh and Judge Teyrani have not processed any cases. Apparently, Judge Teyrani is about to be retired in few weeks.”

The mother of another prisoner who was sentenced to death by the Revolutionary Court of Tehran said, “My son’s new verdict has not been issued yet. We neither have a lawyer nor money, and we are very concerned. Many prisoners with a higher quantity of drugs received a verdict or were released. My son had 600 grams of heroin, and he didn’t have a prior criminal record.”

Reaffirmation of several death sentences despite the absence of prior criminal record

Furthermore, the mother of another prisoner who was sentenced to death by the Revolutionary Court of Urmia said, “Now, the death sentence is reduced to 30 years imprisonment and 200 million Tomans fine; however, the sentences of some prisoners have been reduced to 25 years and one day. Those who were sentenced to life imprisonment are mostly sentenced to 15 years and one day. So far, 6 or 7 people have been sentenced to death again by Judge Sheikhloo at Branch 2 of the Revolutionary Court. Some of the prisoners did not have a prior conviction.”

A prisoner who was sentenced to death in Urmia, told IHR: "I know at least four people without a prior criminal record whose death sentences have been upheld in Branch 2 of the Revolutionary Court (Sheikhloo). The four prisoners are all in jail for more than five years. For two of them, the verdicts were issued for the accusation of the establishment of a narco gang, one person for investing on the narco business and the other one for hiring other people for the drug gangs.”

Disproportionation between crime and punishment: 30 years in prison, for both 200 grams and 40 kilograms

A family member of a prisoner who was sentenced to death by the Revolutionary Court of Isfahan also said to IHR, “My brother was arrested and sentenced to death on the charge of 40 kilograms heroin two years ago. Fortunately, his sentence was reduced to 30 years in prison and 200 million Tomans fine without him or his lawyer asking for an appeal.” In response to the question whether any death sentences had been upheld, he said, “No death sentences have been upheld in Isfahan so far, most sentences are reduced, and the rest of the defendants are still waiting for the result.”

The wife of a prisoner who had been sentenced to death by the Revolutionary Court of Mashhad said, “My husband’s sentence has been reduced. He was sentenced to death for 200 grams of heroin, but now his sentence is reduced to 30 years in prison and 200 million Tomans fine. It’s not fair that the same punishment is issued for both 200 grams and 40 kilograms.”

Public hanging in IranA family member of a prisoner who was sentenced to death by the Revolutionary Court of Sari told IHR, “Most new verdicts are issued by the request of prison wardens. Most of the prisoners are now sentenced to 30 years in prison and 200 million Tomans fine. My nephew also received the same sentence and he is allowed to have a furlough or be transferred to his hometown by law because he’s been in prison for five years now, but they haven’t approved it yet.”

In response to the question of whether any death sentences were upheld by the Revolutionary Court of Sari, he said, “No death sentences have been upheld or carried out in Sari after the new law was enforced.”

He counted “the replacement of the prosecutor of Mazandaran, Sheikh Jafari” a reason for improvement of the situation.

The wife of a prisoner who was sentenced to death by the Revolutionary Court of Isfahan said, “I don’t know on what basis they issued my husband’s sentence. He was sentenced to 26 years in prison and 122 million Tomans fine for 350 grams of heroin by Judge Pour-Rezaei. The same judge sentenced another prisoner who was charged with possession of 76 kilograms of heroin to 30 years in prison and 200 million Tomans fine. Why can’t we object to the decision?”

A prisoner at the Ghezelhasar prison in Karaj, who had previously been sentenced to death in Tehran's Revolutionary Court and now sentenced to 30 years in prison and fined 200 million tomans, told IHR: "Of course, substitution of death sentence to prison terms, has a psychological effect and already has made the prisoners and their families relieved, but at the end of the day, one should look at the real outcome: most of the prisoners were given prison terms of nearly 30 years. It is good, only if they can expect a pardon in future. It is unclear if it is possible to appeal to these verdicts, or not.”

Conclusions and recommendations

Despite the fact that the death sentences of many prisoners changed to prison terms and fines, there are still serious concerns. This brief report, which has been provided through interviews with prisoners and their families, reveals some facts:

1.    The problem of corruption and bribery in the Iranian judicial system: This problem can lead to the violation of the rights of prisoners who are among the poorest sections of society.

2.    Insufficient resources put into this process by the Judiciary: This is especially true in large cities and areas where the number of drug prisoners is high. Eyewitnesses have said that in some of the judge's rooms, there were “folders of the cases from floor to the ceiling." This problem can potentially lead to inaccuracies in handling the cases.

3.    Lack of independent supervision of the process of reviewing the cases and lack of transparency. This problem, along with the lack of capacity in the justice system, corruption, and bribery, can lead to severe injustices in the process of reviewing cases.

4.    The lack of the chance of a fair trial during the review of cases: Since many of the death sentences have been issued on the basis of confessions extracted under torture, the initial confessions must be ignored entirely. During the review of these cases, the defendants should have lawyers -which they do not- and many other pillars of a fair trial are not present in the process.

Public hanging in iran5.    Disproportion between crime and punishment: Most prisoners whose death sentences were commuted have been sentenced to 30 years in prison, regardless of the type and degree of the crime.

Although the new law is likely to reduce the number of executions related to drug crimes, it is important to remember the problems mentioned above.

Meanwhile, the international community should monitor the process of reviewing the cases, and call for the Iranian authorities to be transparent in this regard. Also, there is an urgent need for an international observer delegation, and it is essential to put pressure on Iranian authorities to accept and establish such a system. In the current mechanism, the same judges who once issued the death sentences, are responsible for the reviewing of the same cases. Moreover, the bribery and corruption problem in the Iranian judicial system must be adequately addressed.

IHR also calls for establishing a system for regularly reporting about the process, to an international observer delegation. The Iranian judiciary and authorities should also provide the United Nations with a list of all those who are sentenced to death so that the UN can have more transparent monitoring ability.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, which has collaborated with Iranian counter-narcotics authorities, should have access to the list of all prisoners sentenced to death for drug offenses, and to monitor the process of conversion of death sentences.

Similarly, the European Union and countries involved in UNODC projects in Iran should not resume their financial assistance until these reforms are fully implemented. Moreover, the issue of having a fair trial for detainees arrested in connection with drugs should become a priority in the discussions with Iranian authorities in the future.

Source: Iran Human Rights, May 28, 2018

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"One is absolutely sickened, not by the crimes that the wicked have committed,
but by the punishments that the good have inflicted." -- Oscar Wilde

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