The lives of more than 5,000 prisoners on death row in could be spared as a change in the law abolishes capital punishment for some drug-trafficking offences.
Iran is second only to China in the number of prisoners executed in recent years, the majority put to death for drug offences. More than 500 people were executed in 2017.
The softening of drug-trafficking laws was put into force in a communique by the head of the Iranian judiciary to all judicial officials on Tuesday.
Campaigners said it was a potentially significant step towards halting executions worldwide.
The Iranian parliament passed measures in August raising the threshold for a death sentence to possession of 50kg of opium, 2kg of heroin or 3kg of methamphetamine. Under the previous law, possessing 5kg of opium or 30g of heroin was a capital offence.
The new limits are set to be applied retrospectively, potentially saving the lives of thousands on death row. Mizanonline, the news agency affiliated to Iran’s judicial system, reported on Tuesday that its chief, Ayatollah Sadeq Larijani, had asked officials to halt executions of those affected by the new amendments, reconsider their cases and commute their sentences if possible.
A young population and an abundance of cheap, addictive substances, many coming over the border from Afghanistan, pose a twin challenge to Iranian authorities. Almost 3 million Iranians are estimated to be addicted to hard drugs, out of a population of 80 million.
Iran has mostly resorted to a punitive campaign of arrests and executions to tackle drugs. Last year European countries funding Iran’s counter-narcotics programme if Iran continued to use the death penalty for drug traffickers.
Mahmood Amiry-Moghaddam, from Iran Human Rights (IHR), an independent NGO based in Norway that has monitored Iran’s use of the capital punishment and has been critical of its record, welcomed the news.
“It is potentially one of the most significant steps to limit the use of the death penalty in the world, which can lead to at least 5,000 people, according to official figures, seeing their death sentences commuted,” he said.
“This is quite unprecedented, but one caveat is that the commute is not automatic and convicts need to take the first step themselves and make sure their case is reconsidered.
“Our concern is that the majority of those on death row belong to the marginalised part of the Iranian society and may not be aware of the changes and not have the possibilities to take this step. Those who are on death row for drug offences must be given legal aid.”
Amiry-Moghaddam said that since November when the law was signed by the president, Hassan Rouhani, “nobody that we know of has been executed for such offences”. According to the Iranian parliament’s judicial committee, more than 5,000 convicts on death row could benefit from the amendment, the majority said to be aged between 20 to 30.
Despite the new measures, Iran executed five juvenile offenders in 2017 and has killed at least one so far this year. Iranian leaders have been repeatedly criticised, including by the UN, for continuing to sentence juvenile offenders to death in defiance of international treaties. According to Amnesty, at least 88 people are on death row in Iran for committing crimes while being under the age of 18.
A July 2017 report by Amnesty the new change “fails to abolish the death penalty for non-lethal drug-related offences as is required by international law”.