Iran's government has been putting a lot of people to death.
The Islamic Republic executed nearly 1,000 prisoners last year, marking a high in the number of executions in the country in more than 20 years, and making it the country with the highest number of executions per capita in the world, according to a new UN report.
Issued by the UN's special rapporteur on human rights in Iran, the report said that the majority of those executed were put to death for drug-related offenses.
There was a "staggering surge in the execution of at least 966 prisoners last year — the highest rate in over two decades," UN Special Rapporteur Ahmed Shaheed said at a press conference on Thursday. A former foreign minister of the Maldives, Shaheed has never been allowed into Iran, but his report was based on 128 interviews with Iranians abroad and in the country.
"Under Iran's current drug laws, possession of 30 grams of heroin or cocaine would qualify for the death penalty," he said. "So there's a number of draconian laws."
People can be put to death for a range of 17 drug crimes, including armed smuggling, movement of drugs in prisons, or hiring people while conspiring to break anti-narcotics laws.
More than 500 people executed in 2015, or about 65 percent of those executed, were convicted of such crimes, many of them nonviolent.
At least four juveniles were among those executed, while 160 remain on death row, according to the report. Iranian law stipulates that girls as young as nine years old can be put to death, and boys as young as 15.
The Islamic Republic defended the executions by saying that "severe punishments meted out to large[-scale] drug traffickers have brought about considerable reduction in the harm resulting from the flow of drugs to Iran and beyond."
The report applauded the Iranian law that requires the country's Supreme Court to review all death sentences, but said it was concerned about the lack of due process and fair trial rights, including "long periods of incommunicado and pretrial detention, and lack of adequate access to a lawyer and/or to a proper defense."
It noted that drug offenders are often "subjected to beatings and coerced confessions which are later used in revolutionary courts to secure their death sentences. In some cases judges reportedly convicted and sentenced drug offenders to death based on their 'intuition,' and despite what appeared to be a lack of evidence."
The Iranian government was given the opportunity to review the rapporteur's findings and to have its replies included in the report. It refuted the assertions and said the reference to judges convicting suspects on "intuition" was "false and biased."
Hadi Ghaemi, the executive director of the New York-based International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, which contributed to the UN report, said that the Iranian judiciary justifies the executions because the state is fighting a war on drugs. Iran's location next to Afghanistan makes it a major trafficking route, and as many of two million of its people are estimated to be addicted to drugs like heroin and methamphetamine.
"But there's been no dent in the addiction or drug use rates," Ghaemi said. "So this is a failed policy that has resulted in a massacre. These killings are not resulting in any impact on the drug issue."
Some inside Iran agree, and some Iranian officials have begun to openly question the effectiveness of the country's drug laws and to push for reform.
The report notes that Mohammad Javad Larijani, the head of the High Council for Human Rights in Iran, asserted last December during a panel discussion at Iran's prestigious Sharif University of Technology "that 93 percent of executions in the country are for drug-related crimes, that the death penalty has not led to a significant decrease in drug-related crimes, and that the policy must be reevaluated."
That month, 70 Iranian parliamentarians presented a bill that would impose life imprisonment rather than the death penalty in cases of nonviolent drug-related crimes. It was introduced to the floor of parliament in January, and needs to be approved by the legislature and Guardian Council to become law.
The UN rapporteur and Ghaemi's International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran welcome the efforts to reduce the number of executions.
"We were happy to see the move in the parliament, though we are concerned that this may be window dressing," Ghaemi said. "What we need is action, because people are getting killed every day."
Although China is the worldwide leader by number of people executed, Iran leads the per-capita category. Saudi Arabia last year executed just over 100 people, and the number is expected to rise considerably this year.
The UN report also noted that Iran has widened its crackdown on freedom of expression and opinion in recent months, "punctuated by a series of arrests carried out by the intelligence unit of the Revolutionary Guards and harsh sentences against journalists, cyberactivists and artists."
"Fundamental problems also exist with regard to the due process and fair trial rights of the accused," Shaheed said at Thursday's press conference.
"I continue to receive frequent and alarming reports about the use of prolonged solitary and incommunicado confinement, torture and ill-treatment, lack of access to lawyers and the use of confessions solicited under torture as evidence in trials — practices that clearly violate Iran's own laws," he added.
Hundreds of journalists, bloggers, activists and opposition figures are being held in Iranian prisons and detention facilities.
The Iran Mission at the UN did not respond to a request for comment on the report.
Reuters contributed to this report.