NEW YORK — On June 12 the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA), Iran’s official media outlet, reported that Foreign Ministry officials in Tehran had summoned a Saudi diplomat to protest the reported execution of several Iranians for drug possession and trafficking. An Iranian official denounced the executions as “anti-humanitarian” and in conflict with Saudi Arabia’s “human rights standards” and the “principles of Islam,” IRNA reported.
He also said that the Saudis’ alleged refusal to allow the accused to contact consular officials was a violation of Riyadh’s international obligations.
On June 26, Iran upped the ante. The semi-official Fars News Agency reported that a diplomatic delegation to Saudi Arabia would raise the issue.
The Iranian official has a point. Saudi Arabia has an atrocious rights record when it comes to handling drug offenses. Contrary to international law, Saudi law mandates the death penalty for selling illicit drugs, and the method of execution is usually beheading.
Saudi authorities have also gravely violated the due process rights of those accused of drug crimes, including allegations of torture. Though the Iranian government has not published official statistics, reports estimate that Saudi authorities have executed up to 18 Iranian nationals on drug charges in Dammam prison in the past few months.
Yet one has to wonder what was running through the Iranian official’s mind when he lodged the protest with the Saudis. In 2011, Iran executed at least 600 people, second only to China. Rights groups believe some 400 or so of those executions were for drug-related crimes, including personal use. A Foreign Ministry spokesman said in early 2011 that he believed “more than 80 percent” of all executions in Iran are for drug-related offenses.
This would mean that in 2011, Iran executed for drug offenses more than four times the total number of people Saudi Arabia executed that year: at least 82, according to Amnesty International.
Scores, maybe hundreds, of those Iran executed for drug-related crimes in 2011 and previous years are Afghan nationals who were convicted without access to lawyers or consular officials. Exact numbers are not available, but in 2010 Iranian authorities acknowledged that at least 4,000 Afghans were in Iranian prisons, and that the vast majority were there on drug charges. In April of that year hundreds of angry Afghans demonstrated in front of the Iranian embassy in Kabul after reports surfaced that Iranian prison officials might have executed dozens of Afghans, often in secret.
Also in 2010, rights groups confirmed that Iranian authorities had executed at least two other foreigners, Paul Chindo from Nigeria and Aquasi Aquabe from Ghana, at the Vakilabad prison in the northeastern city of Mashhad without informing the proper consular officials. There is credible information that Aquabe and Chindo are among hundreds of people secretly hanged on drug charges at Vakilabad since 2010.
Iran’s Draconian anti-narcotics law imposes the death penalty for manufacturing, trafficking, possession, or trade of 5 kilograms of opium and other specified drugs, and 30 grams of heroin, morphine, or specified synthetic and non-medical psychotropic drugs. There is little transparency in the prosecution of drug crimes as they are tried behind closed doors in revolutionary courts.
Moreover, Iran’s anti-narcotics law bypasses a longstanding procedural law requiring all death sentences to be appealable to Iran’s Supreme Court and only requires the head of the Supreme Court or the Prosecutor General’s Office to affirm the lower courts’ execution sentences. In October 2010, Iran’s prosecutor general announced that his office would review some drug-related cases in the interest of fast-tracking these cases though the justice system, raising serious concerns regarding the defendants’ right to appeal and to a fair trial.
Since then rights groups have documented cases in which the authorities have simply denied the right to appeal to people on death row for drug-related offenses. Several have been executed. Foreign nationals, especially poor refugees and unlawful migrants from Afghanistan, are at particular risk of being deprived of their right to a fair trial and ultimately executed.
This all happens despite the fact that international laws to which Iran and Saudi Arabia are signatories require access to their consular officials and legal representation for foreign nationals accused of crimes. UN bodies, including the secretary-general’s office, have repeatedly expressed concern about the high level of executions for drug-related offenses, and encouraged Iranian authorities to abolish the death penalty or at least revise the penal code to restrict the death penalty to only the “most serious crimes.”
The least Iranian officials can do is to give foreign nationals charged with drug crimes in Iran, not to mention their own citizens, the same rights they demand for Iranians abroad.
Faraz Sanei is a Middle East researcher with Human Rights Watch.