IRAN’S Foreign Minister Javad Zarif is coming to Islamabad. Naturally, important conversations will take place.
Words, handshakes and stories will be exchanged. Congratulations for Prime Minister Imran Khan will be in order. And Mr Khan, too, must congratulate Iran for achieving something extraordinary.
In August 2017, Iran’s parliament approved a bill that amended its drug-trafficking laws to curtail the application of the death penalty to drug offenders. The amendment reduces the “minimum possession of drugs, including their production or distribution, which results in a death sentence”.
The two FMs should talk about amnesty for Pakistani prisoners in Iran.
Most importantly, the law applies retroactively to those on death row, promising to reduce death sentences of those convicted under the previous standard to imprisonment (about 30 years) and cash fines. It also restricts the death penalty “to those convicted of carrying or drawing weapons, acting as the ringleader, providing financial support, or using minors below the age of 18 or the mentally ill in a drug crime, and to those previously sentenced to death, life imprisonment, or imprisonment for more than 15 years for related crimes”.
The amendment took effect on Nov 14, 2017. According to data released by Iran Human Rights in November 2017, 90 per cent of the 5,300 drug convicts are first-time offenders. This means that the new amendments to the anti-narcotics law can potentially save more than 4,700 lives.
For the world’s second biggest executioner to have recognised that petty drug peddlers are not the real problem — that in order to curtail drug trafficking, whole systems have to be dismantled — is remarkable. Following the Iranian revolution in 1979, anti-narcotics legislation became more and more severe, and, as a result, Iran has the highest incarceration rates for drug offences, and 70pc of death sentences are handed down for drug-related offences.
But the amendment to the anti-narcotics law is far from perfect and continues to be plagued by procedural hurdles and a lack of transparency that could prove especially costly for foreign detainees.
In 2014, the number of Pakistanis imprisoned in Iran was 203. Currently, there is no information about the exact number of Pakistanis on death row in Iran but the number is believed to be high.
From November 2015 to July 2017, at least six Pakistanis were executed on drug charges in Iran. This alone should alarm Islamabad. After all, it has a constitutional duty to protect the rights of Pakistanis wherever they may be.
Amnesty for Pakistani citizens depends largely on forceful diplomatic representations made by the Pakistani government of Pakistan to the Iranian government. It is safe to say that most of the Pakistanis incarcerated in Iran are unable to afford or access attorneys in a challenging foreign legal system. We have no idea if any of the Pakistanis were included among those whose sentences have been reviewed. It is the duty of the government to find out.
Pakistan has shown its diplomatic prowess in the past, when it comes to saving its citizens’ lives. When Indonesia issued execution warrants for Zulfiqar Ali in July 2016, interventions from the government saved him from the firing squad — a feat that the governments of the other foreign nationals executed that night were unable to achieve.
President Joko Widodo visited Pakistan this year. On the day of his arrival, the then foreign minister tweeted that Zulfiqar’s case would be raised. And it was. Widodo promised to re-examine the case on humanitarian grounds (Zulfiqar was diagnosed with terminal cancer in late 2017).
Zulfiqar was so close to being saved, and he could have spent his final days as a free man. Instead, he died waiting for both governments to make good on a promise that spelled a big diplomatic win.
We live in a world where governments will bend over backwards to come to the aid of citizens who commit heinous crimes, like the US did for Raymond Davis. Even if our citizens are incarcerated for peddling drugs, they deserve to be treated in accordance with the law, and as part of their contract with the state, they are entitled to their government’s full backing.
The government of Pakistan must ask the visiting dignitary for the names of all of its citizens in Iranian jails. It must press upon Iran to specify which prisoners qualify for amnesty and ensure that their reviews are filed, and sentences commuted. As a regional ally of Pakistan, a prisoner transfer agreement with Iran must be negotiated, just as we have previously stated our intention to do with Saudi Arabia and China.
Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi expressed his pride in his homeland, stating his intention to speak in his mother tongue at the upcoming UN General Assembly session.
He knows better than anyone that actions speak louder than words.
The writer is executive director, Justice Project Pakistan.
Published in Dawn, August 30th, 2018