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Why Does the UN Help Fund Policies That Kill Nonviolent Drug Offenders in Iran?

Iran executes hundreds of people for drug crimes every year, and yet the international community continues to fund its brutal drug wars.

by Kristen Gwynne
Oct 16 2015, 6:00pm

Photo via Flickr user Alan

Criminal justice reform may be in vogue in the United States right now, but worldwide, the picture looks a bit grimmer. After all, there are still governments that kill people for drug crimes. And as the United Nations General Assembly prepares to hold a special session on drugs next year, human rights organizations hope to use the occasion to shine a spotlight on UN funding for drug interdiction in countries that execute drug offenders.

Financial support for these severe punishments, they say, is blatantly inconsistent with international standards and any semblance of human decency.

Neither the European Union, which has banned the death penalty altogether, nor the United States execute drug criminals. But that doesn't stop the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) from proudly funding drug war policies in countries like Iran, where the death penalty for possession of certain amounts of illegal substances is not just an option for judges, but a mandatory sentence. The policy sends hundreds of alleged drug offenders to their deaths every year.

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Groups like the Open Society Foundation (OSF), which recently published a report detailing drugs and the death penalty across the globe, say these executions violate international law. They also argue that drug-related death sentences contradict an International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights resolution reserving the death penalty for "the most serious crimes," a stance echoed by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

...experts say those killed are not limited to high-level drug traffickers, but also include low-level dealers who are some of the most marginalized and impoverished people in the country.

Last year, a consortium of human rights groups signed a letter to the UNODC urging a freeze in funds for Iran's drug program. In a press release, they wrote, "The [UNODC] should follow its own human rights guidance and impose 'a temporary freeze or withdrawal of support' if 'following requests for guarantees and high-level political intervention, executions for drug related offenses continue.'"

Nonetheless, the UNODC continues to fund drug eradication efforts in Iran, perhaps the world capital when it comes to egregious punishment for drug crimes. Iran isn't the only country receiving funding that executes drug criminals, but it sits at a crucial transitory point between neighboring Afghanistan and Europe. Iranian officials apparently believe their drug policy is a matter of national security, and that it is essential to deter drug trafficking and related violence, as well as widespread addiction. But executions in Iran have proven ineffective at containing drug trade, according to the Open Society Foundation.

According to the OSF report—which Harm Reduction International was instrumental in compiling—since 1979, Iran has executed more than 10,000 drug criminals. And the country's disclosure of drug crime executions lacks transparency, leaving estimates of reliable figures (which the Iranian government disputes) up to human rights organizations.

Perhaps most glaringly, experts say those killed are not limited to high-level drug traffickers, but also include low-level dealers who are some of the most marginalized and impoverished people in the country.

"The reality is that in these prisons, a lot of people who are arrested for drugs and sentenced to death come from very poor backgrounds," Roya Boroumand, executive director of the Abdorrahman Boroumand Foundation (ABF), which tracks Iran's drug crime executions, told VICE. And while Iran has struggled with violence linked to the drug trade, human rights organizations say executions do not typically target kingpins, but downtrodden addicts or impoverished people desperate for cash.

Advocates argue that international authorities are aware Iran's extreme punishments are sweeping-up low-level, nonviolent criminals—and simply declining to do anything about it.

"UNODC knows and has been alerted by human rights organizations for years now that Iran is executing nonviolent drug offenders, and that this is a specific violation of international law and of Iran's international legal obligations because nonviolent drug offenses are not considered most serious crimes," Faraz Sanei, director of the Human Rights in Iran Unit at the City University of New York, told me.

Drug executions in Iran have spiked significantly in recent years, making the UN funding all the more alarming. In 2007, Amnesty International counted more than 300 executions in Iran; by 2011, OSF cited another tally higher than 600. Many of these executions are for drugs crimes, and they are often carried out by hanging.

Some of them are public.

Part of the reason for the increase in drug executions, experts say, was an amendment expanding Iran's Anti-Narcotics Law, which imposes capital punishment for manufacturing, trafficking, or possession of certain quantities of drugs, including as little as 30 grams of heroin. Another was changes to the country's appeals system.

These prosecutions rely heavily on confessions that may be elicited without legal counsel for the accused, leaving the offender vulnerable to abuse and coercion.

"The 2010 amendments made to the Anti Narcotics law in Iran made it much easier for drug offenders to get the mandatory death sentence" by adding additional categories of crimes that category, according to Sanei. Around the same time, Iran also altered its judicial process so that appeals to decisions issued by the Revolutionary Court—where all drug crimes are processed—go to the prosecutor general's office rather than the Supreme Court. "At the end of the day, the prosecutor general is not an impartial court," Sanei said. "It is a judiciary position that is tasked with being aggressive and punishing these individuals."

Iran's Revolutionary Courts, which are notoriously unfair and overburdened, raise grave concerns about due process for executed drug offenders.

"The numbers of cases going into Revolutionary Court are so high often times these individuals are questioned and interrogated without the presence of a lawyer and that in and of itself is problematic," Sanei said.

These prosecutions rely heavily on confessions that may be elicited without legal counsel for the accused, leaving the offender vulnerable to abuse and coercion.

Given a judicial process that is stacked against drug-offenders and the government's general animosity toward political dissent, it's fair to wonder if Iran uses drug crimes to trump up charges against, and even execute, opposition figures. In one case, Iranian-Dutch national Zahra Bahrami—who was killed by the state in 2011—was originally charged with protesting in 2009, and later sentenced to death after drugs some believe to have been planted were found in her home.

"Frequently, drug crimes are used as a pretext for persecuting political dissidents," Dan Dolan of the death penalty team at the London-based human rights nonprofit Reprieve, told VICE. The OSF report notes that after the large-scale protests in 2009 and 2010, execution estimates spiked from more than 300 in 2009 to more than 600 in 2010, with 75 to 90 percent of those killed for drug crimes.

Rates of drug crime executions in Iran remain high. From January to August of this year, the Abdorrahman Boroumand Foundation counted 835 executions, 69 percent of which were for drug-related offenses. Last Saturday, which was the 13th World Day Against the Death Penalty, Iran executed three people for drug crimes, according to ABF.

Despite all this evidence of human rights abuses and executions, the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime doesn't seem to be planning to change its funding scheme anytime soon. The organization itself says that "as an entity of the United Nations system, UNODC advocates the abolition of the death penalty and calls upon Member States to follow international standards concerning prohibition of the death penalty for offences of a drug-related or purely economic nature." But since about 1998, advocates say, the UN has provided Iran with nearly $15 million in funds to combat drug trafficking. (A UNODC spokesman referred VICE to statements made by Executive Director Yury Fedotov and Secretary General Ban Ki-moon but declined further comment.)

"UNODC public policy and principle, on one hand, is against death penalty for drug offenses," Dolan said. "But in practice, the UNODC does everything from supplying drug detection dogs, body scanners, and vehicles, [to] setting up border posts in areas where drug mules are frequently arrested and then sentenced to death, and fails entirely to implement practical safeguards which would stop that assistance leading to their sentences and executions."

Human rights groups like Reprieve and OSF recommend that governments commit to abolishing the death penalty for drugs. They don't suggest cutting funding entirely, but instead advocate for providing alternatives to punitive policies in countries that continue to kill for drug crimes. The 2016 UN meeting seems to them like the ideal opportunity to launch a campaign, or at least a conversation, about the international community's ongoing support for countries that think capital punishment is the way to deter drug trafficking and abuse.

"The UNODC is currently lining up generous, multi-year funding deals [in Iran], and is actively encouraging governments around the world to donate to those programs, so this is a really pressing issue," Dolan said, "National governments will be getting requests right now to donate to the UNODC, and I think those governments really need to decide whether it's appropriate, as some of them [like France] are world leaders against capital punishment, to support programs which risk enabling capital punishment on such a broad scale, to such a heinous degree."

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