Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty
By Golnaz Esfandiari
Wednesday, 22 February 2017
The spiritual leader of Iran's Sunnis has written to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to express concern over "rumors" of a secret order for the speedy execution of Sunni prisoners convicted of drug trafficking.
Molavi Abdolhamid, the Friday Prayers leader of the southeastern city of Zahedan in the restive Sistan-Baluchistan Province, calls in his letter to Khamenei for "wise and fatherly" intervention into the issue.
Abdolhamid, who's been outspoken about the rights of Sunnis and the discrimination they face in Iran, appears to be referring to a recent report by a news site close to the country's reformist politicians that is making the rounds on social media.
The report issued earlier this week by Amadnews.com claims that the head of Iran's hard-line judiciary has ordered Sunni prisoners convicted of drug smuggling to be executed as soon as possible so they won't be subject to a parliament bill that proposes the elimination of the death penalty for prisoners convicted of drug-related offenses.
The report said that at least 50 Sunni prisoners could be executed as a result of the alleged secret order.
Officials have not publicly commented on the report.
"Regardless of its accuracy, the rumor has resulted in worry and concern among Sunnis," says the letter, parts of which were published on Abdolhamid's website.
Sunnis -- who constitute between 4 and 8 percent of Iran's 83 million people -- make up a disproportionately larger proportion of the death-row population due to their presence in several rural border areas where drug routes are often located and communities are often impoverished.
The parliament's bill is an attempt to reduce the large number of executions in Iran – one of the highest rates in the world -- where drug traffickers account for the majority of those hanged.
Iranian laws call for the death penalty for the trafficking or possession of as little as 30 grams of drugs such as heroin or cocaine.
Critics have said the extensive use of the death penalty has done little to stop drug use and trafficking in the country, which is on a major transit route for drugs smuggled from Afghanistan to Europe.
Iranian lawmaker Hassan Nowruzi said in November that 5,000 people between the ages of 20 and 30 were on death row in Iran for drug offenses. He said the majority of them were first-time offenders.
Lawmakers supporting the draft bill reducing death sentences for drug smugglers have said capital punishment should be abolished for those who become involved in drug trafficking out of desperation and poverty.
But hard-liners in the judiciary appear to be resistant to the bill that is currently being considered by parliamentary committees.
The head of the judiciary, Ayatollah Sadegh Larijani, defended the body's "tough stance" on the proposed change to the law in comments published in September. "In some cases, including drug trafficking, we're forced to act quickly, openly, and decisively," he said, while adding that the judges should not delay the implementation of sentences.
He said that in some cases "alternative punishments" could replace the death penalty while respecting "some conditions," but added that "the death penalty cannot be ruled out."
At least 977 people were put to death in Iran in 2015, mainly for drug-related crimes, according to a report by London-based Amnesty International.
Many Sunnis are reportedly among those executed, though exact numbers are not available.
Iranian Vice President Shahindokht Molaverdi came under fire from officials in March when she said that all of the men in one village in the province of Sistan-Baluchistan, which is home to a large Sunni population, had been executed for drug-related offenses.