Iran relents in draconian drug war —after protest

Some rare good news is reported from Iran, where a reform of the country's drug laws may save the lives of thousands now on death row. Some 5,000 people are currently awaiting execution for drug offenses in the Islamic Republic, and all of them could now have their sentences reviewed, according to the New York Times. The move, part of a legal reform in the works since 2016, is aimed at reducing the number of executions in the country. Iran has seen ghastly mass executions of drug convicts in recent years, driving a spike in hangings that has appalled human rights groups. Iran saw 1,000 executions last year—making it second only to China, which keeps its stats on use of the death penalty secret.

Now, there's finally been a breakthrough. Under the old law, possessing 30 grams of cocaine automatically triggered the death penalty. Under the reform passed by Iran's parliament in August, that's now been increased to 2 kilograms. The figure for opium or cannabis has been increased tenfold to 50 kilos.

Ayatollah Sadegh Larijani, head of Iran's judiciary, said the reform will be applied retroactively. The move has also been approved by Iran's Guardian Council, a clerical body that has the last word on any new legislation.

Mahmood Amiry-Moghaddam of Iran Human Rights, an independent watchdog based in Norway, was encouraged by the reform. "If implemented properly, this change in law will represent one of the most significant steps towards reduction in the use of the death penalty worldwide," he told the BBC.

But he also cautioned: "Since most of those sentenced to death for drug offenses belong to the most marginalized parts of Iranian society, it is not given that they have the knowledge and resources to apply for commuting their sentence."

Amnesty International also welcomed the news, but hoped it would only be a beginning. "The Iranian authorities must stop using the death penalty for drug-related offenses, with a view to eventually abolishing it for all crimes," a representative told BBC.

News accounts of the reform did not note that it is the fruit of protests within Iran, as well as pressure from international human rights groups. It won little coverage in the West, but following a wave of executions in 2016, some 1,800 prisoners at Qezel Hessar Prison outside Tehran went on hunger strike. Some courageous prisoners' families organized to support them, calling for reduced sentences for drug crimes—even holding vigils outside the Parliament building.

Never let 'em tell you protest doesn't get the goods—even in a rigidly closed place like Iran.

See our last post on the civil opposition in Iran.