Last Updated: Thursday, 17 April 2014, 13:11 GMT

Iran: Donors Should Reassess Anti-Drug Funding

Publisher Human Rights Watch
Publication Date 21 August 2012
Cite as Human Rights Watch, Iran: Donors Should Reassess Anti-Drug Funding, 21 August 2012, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/503768612.html [accessed 18 April 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.
Prosecutions of Drug Offenders Violate Rights, Result in Frequent Executions

United Nations agencies and international donors should immediately freeze financial and other assistance to Iran's drug control programs, Human Rights Watch and Harm Reduction International (HRI) said today. The funding contributes to abusive prosecutions of drug suspects, the groups said.

Iran's judicial and legal system systematically violates the human rights of accused drug offenders, in particular their right to a fair trial, resulting in numerous death sentences in violation of international law, Human Rights Watch and HRI said. The donors should audit the human rights impacts of their projects and not resume any assistance until satisfied that Iran has ended the persistent violation of the rights of drug suspects in its criminal justice system, including abolishing the death penalty for drug offenders.

"Donors are effectively supporting prosecutions in a judicial and legal system that they themselves regard as unjust," said Rebecca Schleifer, advocacy director of the Health and Human Rights Division at Human Rights Watch. "Draconian laws, secret trials, no appeals, and death sentences for possession of small amounts of drugs should warn off any donor that wants to do the right thing."

UN agencies and international donors have in the past decade provided millions of dollars of financial and technical assistance to support drug control efforts in Iran or to programs in neighboring countries that affect enforcement capacity in Iran, according to information collected by HRI. The stated purpose of these drug enforcement programs is to reduce crime and human suffering by reducing the supply and demand of illicit drugs.

"In reality, Iran's drug enforcement programs increase its capacity to arrest alleged drug offenders," said Schleifer. "They make it easier to prosecute alleged offenders based on unfair trials, and even apply the death sentence under the draconian drug laws of Iran's revolutionary courts."
The problem is made worse by laws, policies, and practices regulating drug offenses. Iran's anti-narcotics law imposes mandatory death sentences for possession and trafficking of small amounts of illicit drugs, tries alleged drug offenders behind closed doors in revolutionary courts where they are regularly denied their due process rights, and severely restricts their right to appeal even in cases where the punishment is death.

The number of people executed by Iranian authorities for drug-related offenses has risen sharply over the last few years. In 2011, Iran executed at least 600 people, second only to China. Eighty-one percent of these executions were for drug-related crimes, including for personal use. According to Amnesty International, in 2009, of the 389 executions recorded, 166– almost 43 percent– were drug-related. In 2010 about 68 percent of all executions recorded by the organization– 172 of the 253 known executions– were for drug-related offenses.

The UN secretary-general and the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran both expressed concern in 2011 about the high number of executions for drug-related offenses. In October 2011, the UN Human Rights Committee recommendedthat the Iranian authorities consider abolishing the death penalty or at least revising the penal code to restrict the death penalty to only the "most serious crimes."

UN human rights mechanisms– including the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions, and the UN Human Rights Committee– also have concluded that the death penalty for drug offenses fails to meet the condition of "most serious crime." The UN high commissioner for human rights and the director of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) have likewise expressed grave concerns about imposing the death penalty for drug offenses.

In 2012, UNODC released guidelines on the promotion and protection of human rights in countries where it funds law enforcement and anti-trafficking measures. The guidelines acknowledge that if "a country actively continues to apply the death penalty for drug offences, UNODC places itself in a very vulnerable position vis-à-vis its responsibility to respect human rights if it maintains support to law enforcement units, prosecutors or courts within the criminal justice system." They also explicitly acknowledge that training of law enforcement forces who are responsible for the arrest of drug traffickers who are ultimately sentenced to death "may be considered sufficiently proximate" to implicate international responsibility.

The guidelines provide that in cases where executions for drug-related offenses continue unabated despite requests for guarantees and high-level political intervention, UNODC "may have no choice but to employ a temporary freeze or withdrawal of support."

Iran's anti-narcotics law imposes a mandatory death sentence 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, such as methamphetamines.

Although domestic and international law say that all death sentences should be subject to appeal, Iran has apparently limited appeals in these cases. On October 11, 2010, Prosecutor General Gholam Hossein Mohseni-Ejei announced that in an effort to speed up the prosecution of drug offenses, certain trafficking cases would be referred to his office. After this announcement, rights groups received information that some of those convicted under the drug law have not been permitted to lodge appeals.

Foreign nationals, especially refugees and unlawful migrants from Afghanistan, are at particular risk of being deprived of their right to a fair trial and ultimately executed, Human Rights Watch and HRI said. Scores of those executed for drug-related crimes in recent years, many of them at the Vakilabad prison in the northeastern city of Mashhad, are believed to have been Afghan nationals who were convicted without access to lawyers or consular officials. Exact numbers are not available, but in 2010 Iranian officials acknowledged that at least 4,000 Afghans were in Iranian prisons, the vast majority on drug charges. Since then authorities have executed several other foreign nationals without informing the proper consular officials.

"In spite of widespread reports of these human rights abuses, UNODC and donor countries have continued to give millions of dollars to the governments of Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan in the name of combating drug trafficking," said Schleifer. According to a new report released by HRI, a significant portion of this funding has gone to Afghan-Iranian drug border control programs.
For example, Austria, Canada, the European Union, and Germany provided more than US$4 million to secure the Iran-Afghanistan border from 2004 through 2009, including construction of 25 border posts aimed at "enhance[ing] the capacity of the Afghan Border Police to reduce the flow of drugs." The funding included training, capacity-building, and equipment such as drug test kits, night vision goggles, and vehicles. During the lifetime of the project, Iranian authorities arrested 16 Afghan children who were later sentenced to death in Iran on drug trafficking charges, clear evidence of the human rights environment all but ignored by large scale international drug enforcement assistance.

From 2007 to 2011, Belgium, France, Ireland, Japan, and the United Kingdom provided $3.4 million through UNODC to establish border liaison offices as well as for body scanners and sniffer dogs to be used at checkpoints, major airports, and the Iran-Afghanistan border. According to UNODC, in 2010, drug detecting dog units helped seize more than 33 tons of drugs, and the number of such seizures rose significantly in 2011, along with associated arrests and prosecutions. The installation of body scanners at airports led to a twelve-fold increase in drug seizures.
In 2010 and 2011, Iranian authorities executed more than 1,000 drug offenders, more than triple the number in the prior two-year period, according to HRI.

Both Human Rights Watch and HRI have previously raised serious concernsthat the assistance may play a part, direct or indirect, in Iran's human rights violations. Many donor countries that have abolished use of the death penalty regularly criticize Iran for high execution rates. The United Kingdom, along with all EU member states, opposes the death penalty. But in 2009 the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office acknowledged that it spent approximately £3,025,000 [US$4,761,955] on counter-narcotics assistance in and with Iran between 2000 and 2009.

UNODC has consistently praised the Iranian government's efforts at combatting drug trafficking. In July 2011 its executive director, Yuri Fedotov, said that Iran had "one of the world's strongest counter-narcotics responses" and that its good practices "deserve the acknowledgement of the international community." Yet Fedetov has said nothing about the hundreds of prisoners that Iran has hanged following fundamentally flawed trials. The silence is especially puzzling because UNODC opposes the death penalty for drug-related offenses, and publicly has acknowledged the importance of promoting and protecting human rights in combatting drugs. 

Despite the repressive measures adopted by Iran, according to UNODC's 2012 World Drug Report, Iran has one of the "highest prevalence rates for opium and heroin use" in the world, with more than 1.2 million drug-dependent users. UNODC's figures also show that drug addiction and HIV rates have soared in recent years, with injecting drug users accounting for almost 70 percent of the country's 22,000 detected HIV cases. The report also mentioned that in recent years illicit manufacturing of synthetic drugs, including methamphetamines, has sharply increased in Iran.

In December 2010, the European Parliament concluded there was a need to ensure that drug enforcement funding does not facilitate human rights abuses. It specifically referred to application of the death penalty for drug crimes as an example of a human rights violation, and said that, "The abolition of the death penalty for drug-related offenses should be made a precondition for financial assistance, capacity-building and other support for drug enforcement."

"Donors should freeze funding to drug law enforcement programs in Iran until it suspends the death penalty and adopts fair trial standards," said Damon Barrett, deputy director of HRI. "The donors should adopt clear policy guidelines for human rights standards in funding all drug control programs and audit the programs to make sure the standards are followed. Governments often talk about their 'shared responsibility' in fighting the drug trade. It's time for shared responsibility for the human rights consequences of that fight."

Recommendations for action by international donors and Iran follow.

UNODC and International Donors Should:

  • Freeze funding of drug enforcement programs to Iran or other governments engaged in bilateral border patrol arrangements that may lead to arrests of alleged drug offenders by Iranian authorities until Iran takes steps to assure that its drug enforcement practices meet international standards;
  • Implement guidelines issued by UNODC that are rooted in international human rights standards – including the abolition of the death penalty for drug crimes, prosecution of drug cases in ordinary criminal courts, and guarantees that those accused of drug crimes will receive fair trials – for financial, technical and other assistance provided for drug enforcement, demand reduction, or related projects such as HIV-focused programming in Iran; 
  • Audit all funding and program activities for drug control to ensure that no funding contributes directly or indirectly to increased arrests of drug offenders in a highly problematic legal and judicial system;
  • Implement a transparent system of human rights impact assessments initially and throughout the lifetime of projects. UNODC's plans for a "human rights planning tool" should be transparent and replicated at the government level on multilateral and bilateral funding decisions for drug enforcement; andResume funding to the Iranian government or other governments engaged in bilateral border patrol arrangements that may lead to arrests of alleged drug offenders by Iranian authorities only if the concerned governments have taken significant steps with a demonstrable impact on ending related rights abuses.

Iran Should:

  • Declare an immediate moratorium on all executions with a view to the abolition of the death penalty in line with UN General Assembly Resolution 62/149 and 63/168 on "moratorium on the use of the death penalty" and commute all death sentences, including for drug offenses;
  • Abolish provisions within Iran's penal code that allow for the death penalty for drug offenses;
  • Prosecute drug-related cases in open and fair public trials in ordinary criminal courts, that meet international standards, including ensuring that defendants have proper access to a lawyer and the right to an appeal; and
  • Publicize statistics on the death penalty and facts around the administration of justice in death penalty cases.
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