Iran, Saudi Arabia – and the unfair trials for ‘drugs offenders’

By Ann Harrison, Deputy Director of Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Programme

I must admit that I had to blink and look away for a moment when I saw the Iranian news agency headline: ‘Execution of Iranian citizens in Saudi Arabia was a medieval act.

As Amnesty International has documented for many years, it is true a large number of people are executed in Saudi Arabia after grossly unfair trials.

Foreign nationals face discrimination in relation to the death penalty and executions for drugs offences are on the rise.

Indeed, the number of alleged drugs offenders put to death this year has comprised more than a third of the total executed in the kingdom. That’s quite a leap when you consider in 2011 just three out of an estimated 82 individuals beheaded by the state were convicted of drugs offences.

So it came as no surprise to hear that the four (or maybe more) Iranians said to have been executed (the Saudi Arabian authorities have not confirmed the executions) had not been allowed consular access and that the Saudi Arabian authorities did not allow them to lawyers or interpreters in the court – both violations of the internationally recognized right to a fair trial.

Nor is it beyond the realm of possibility that the claim “there are doubts about whether there even were any proper judicial proceedings” has some truth behind it … we have long campaigned for reform of the judicial sector in Saudi Arabia, where there is no Penal Code and judges have almost carte blanche to try any case as they see fit – with resultant high levels of executions and cruel or torturous punishments such as flogging and amputations.

However, it is bizarre for an Iranian news source to state so blatantly that “executing a foreign national for a crime less serious than murder is a sign of barbarity”.

International standards do indeed prohibit the use of the death penalty except for “crimes with an intention to kill which resulted in the loss of life”, but we shouldn’t forget that Iran is second only to China in the number of executions carried out on an annual basis, with many of the over 600 executions believed to have taken place in 2011 carried out behind a cloak of secrecy.

Incidentally in 2011 Saudi Arabia was the next most prolific executioner, seeing a return to high execution rates with the number of people executed up threefold from 2010 levels.

What is more, the vast majority of executions in Iran are also of those convicted of alleged drugs offences – and many are believed to be foreign nationals, particularly Afghans, who are particularly poorly treated under Iran’s justice system.

Amnesty International documented the catalogue of human rights violations which alleged drugs offenders face in Iran in our reportAddicted to death issued last year.
We detailed mistreatment that included torture to obtain “confessions” and frequent denial of access to lawyers, consular assistance and no right of appeal – as death sentences passed by Revolutionary Courts under the Anti-Narcotics Law are merely subject to “confirmation” usually by the Prosecutor-General.

In short, defendants’ rights are routinely trampled on.

Iran has a big drugs problem – and other states are keen to cooperate with it to try to stem the flow of opium out of Afghanistan to the West, Africa and elsewhere.  And Saudi Arabia and Iran are at loggerheads over their influence in the region.

But executing alleged drugs offenders is no solution to either issue. If both countries stopped executions for drugs offences, total executions in the MENA region would decline dramatically – and allow a proper debate to begin about the use of the death penalty for any offence.

Read more:

Saudi Arabia urged to spare lives of foreign nationals amid surge in executions (Press release, 15 February 2012)

Iran: Addicted to Death: New Amnesty International report on executions for drug offences in Iran (Report, 12 December 2011)

Abolish the death penalty (Campaign page)