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UN drugs deal with Iran is sending people to the gallows

Jannat Mir was in the 9th grade when he left Afghanistan for Iran. Like many who journey across the border, he was probably looking for more opportunity in the comparatively more stable neighbouring country. But instead, on the 18th April 2014, 15- year- old Jannat was hanged in Dastgerd prison in the city of Isfahan, Iran.

He had been arrested by the Iranian authorities and sentenced to death for allegedly moving heroin across the border. Jannat didn't have access to a lawyer and, after his death; the Iranian authorities reportedly did not allow the family to take the body back to Afghanistan.

A month before Jannat was executed, Yuri Fedotov, the Executive Director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), applauded the Iranians' effort to combat drug trafficking. "Iran takes a very active role to fight against illicit drugs Fedotov told reporters. "It is very impressive." While Janat was in custody, UNODC was co-funding a $5.4m (£3.6m) project that provided support for Iran's war on drugs.

Many have lost their lives to this war. So far this year, the Iranian authorities are believed to have executed an equivalent of more than three people per day; 80% of those awaiting execution are convicted of drug-related offences, according to the Iranian authorities. UNODC is now reportedly about to finalise a new multimillion-dollar funding package for Iran's counter-narcotics trafficking programmes, despite the country's high execution rate of drug offenders.

The new five- year deal will be funded with money from some European donors. The UK, Denmark and Ireland have stopped funding the Iranian campaign due to the human rights concerns. However, according to the organisation Reprieve, France and Norway continue to give money.

The news of the deal comes at a time when Amnesty International called Iran out for its "staggering execution spree". Last week, the group released a statement noting that the Iranian authorities are believed to have executed an astonishing 694 people between 1 January and 15 July 2015; an unprecedented spike in executions. Amnesty pointed to Iran's Anti-Narcotics Law as a possible explanation of the spike. The law provides mandatory death sentences for a range of drug-related offences, including trafficking more than 5kg of narcotics derived from opium or more than 30g of heroin, morphine, cocaine or their chemical derivatives.

Under article 6(2) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Iran has ratified, the death penalty may be applied only to the "most serious crimes". The UN Human Rights Committee has said that drug offences do not constitute "most serious crimes", and that use of the death penalty for drug offences violates international law. According to figures obtained from Iran Human Rights Documentation Centre (IHRDC), in one week in June this year, 47 people were allegedly hanged for the crime of drug trafficking, although most were not "officially" recognised.

The death penalty sentences are handed down by a flawed legal system, notes Rod Sanjabi, Executive Director of IHRDC. "There's typically no appeal, no right to appeal," he says. "The trial court judgement is final and that's even in death penalty cases, which is quite starkly in violation of domestic law, let along international obligations." The standard of evidence is typically not very high, he adds, noting there is reliance in the Iranian legal system on confessions: "The arrest will be followed by some lengthy period, sometimes days, sometimes weeks, sometimes months, of pre-trial detention where the defendant is in held incommunicado for periods of time, kept in solitary confinement, usually denied legal counsel… they'll be held for this long pre-trial period, specifically with the aim of extracting a confession from them."

Human rights organisations have campaigned for the UN to freeze the funding of Iran's anti-narcotic efforts on account of this. In December 2014, six organisations; Reprieve, Human Rights Watch, Iran Human Rights, the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty, Harm Reduction International and the Abdorrahman Boroumand Foundation called on UNODC to follow its own human rights guidance, which explicitly stated that UNODC actions should take every opportunity to further the realization of human rights.

They described the agency's decision to continue funding supply-side counter-narcotics efforts in the country as "ineffective if not counterproductive." This point was reiterated in the Amnesty International press release. Earlier this year, the deputy of Iran's Centre for Strategic Research admitted that the death penalty has not been able to reduce drug trafficking levels.

What would be more effective argues Sanjabi, is to tackle the underlying issues pushing people towards drug trafficking. "There are, in the border areas especially, a widespread lack of opportunity for youth, educated or uneducated," he said. "It is probably far more effective for the state to focus on creating those opportunities and far more constructive as well, rather than to simply continue to deal with the drug trafficking problem in a reactive manner."

Reprieve spoke to Memo about the deal. Maya Foa, Director of Reprieve's death penalty team, said: "Iran has hanged hundreds of alleged drug offenders this year, but the UNODC still refuses to come clean about its generous new funding deal for Iranian drug police.

"It is an untenable hypocrisy for European nations like France and Germany to claim they oppose capital punishment "in all circumstances" while funding raids which send drug mules to death row. If these states' commitments on the death penalty are to count for anything, they should impose effective and transparent conditions to ensure their aid does not lead to executions", she added.

As UNODC looks set to provide millions of dollars to Iran for its counter-narcotics efforts, the spike in executions will no doubt continue to rise. And the UN will continue to have blood on its hands.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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