2015 has been a bumper year for capital punishment in Iran.
Tehran hanged at least 694 people between Jan. 1 and Sept. 15, the highest rate of executions in the Islamic Republic in some 25 years, according to a report by a U.N. human rights monitor.
The pace of executions is likely driven by a surge in drug crimes, which accounted for 69 percent of the executions in the first half of 2015, according to the 26-page report.
The report’s findings present a decidedly harsh image of the country at a time when Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and his American-educated foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, have been promoting a more moderate vision of Iran to the outside world.
Since signing a landmark nuclear deal with the United States and other world powers in July, Tehran has been hosting a procession of Western officials and business leaders looking to do business with a newly sanctions-free Iran. But even if the country has seen a diplomatic opening of sorts since Rouhani came to power in the summer of 2013, that hasn’t translated into any improvement in other sensitive areas.
“In terms of human rights, there has been no sign of improvement in the country,” Ahmed Shaheed, the U.N. special rapporteur for human rights in Iran, told reporters at a press conference at U.N. headquarters last October.
A decade ago, during Mohammad Khatami’s final year as president in 2005, Iran carried out a total of 91 executions. But over the next year, that number nearly doubled to 177 in hard-line former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s first full year in office. It has steadily risen ever since.
“The Islamic Republic of Iran continues … to execute more individuals per capita than any other country in the world. Executions have been rising at an exponential rate since 2005 and peaked in 2014, at a shocking 753 executions,” Shaheed wrote in his report, which was presented to the U.N. General Assembly human rights’ committee in October. “This spate reportedly accelerated at a further staggering rate during the first seven months of 2015 .”
Despite Iran’s rapid increase, China still tops the world in executions, putting as many people to death as the rest of the world combined, according to Amnesty International. Although firm numbers are hard to come by, Amnesty estimates Beijing executes thousands of people every year. The Dui Hua Foundation, a San Francisco-based human rights nonprofit, estimated that China executed about 2,400 prisoners in both 2013 and 2014. The United States, since it reinstated the death penalty in 1976, has executed a total of 1,418 people.
For years, Iran has barred Shaheed and other U.N. human rights officials from visiting the country to see the human rights situation first hand. In a press briefing last October, Shaheed said that Rouhani’s administration has been more willing than his predecessor to engage on human rights issues.
Senior Iranian officials met with Shaheed in mid-September in Geneva. But that meeting was limited to a discussion about why Iran felt justified in applying the death penalty for drug violations.
The Iranian delegation told Shaheed that as many as 10,000 people die each year from drug abuse and that 12,000 police have been injured or killed during the past five years in clashes with drug-traffickers.
“Officials assert that capital punishment functions as a sound deterrent to would-be criminals,” Shaheed wrote in his report. “They reported that the punishment is only applied to perpetrators guilty of importing exceptionally large quantities of narcotics regarded as serious by the [government], including opium and crystal methamphetamines.”
In addition to drug crimes, Iranian law applies the death penalty for a range of offenses: from threats to “the security of the state” to “enmity towards God,” also known as moharebeh, to “insults against the memory of Imam Khomeini and against the supreme leader of the Islamic Republic,” according to the State Department’s 2014 human rights report on Iran. “Prosecutors frequently used moharebeh as a criminal charge against political dissidents and journalists, accusing them of struggling against the precepts of Islam and against the state that upholds those precepts.”
Iran’s mission to the United Nations did not respond to a request for comment. But Iran has previously claimed that the number of executions are significantly smaller than the figures cited in the U.N. report. For instance, Iran claims that only 268 people were executed in 2014, according to a State Department report.
Still, the growing number of executions has prompted an internal discussion in Iran over the wisdom of seeking the death penalty for most drug offenses. Speaking to France 24, Mohammad Javad Larijani, an influential Iranian politician who heads the country’s High Council for Human Rights, said he was working with other Iranian lawmakers to strike the death penalty for most drug-related crimes.
“No one is happy to see the number of executions is high,” according to an account published in Al-Monitor. If the law could be changed, he said, “almost 80 percent of the executions will go away.”
Speaking to reporters, Shaheed said a “deeply flawed justice system” that violates international standards and national laws sits at the heart of Iran’s human rights troubles. He said he continues “to receive frequent, alarming reports” about the mistreatment of detainees and the use of torture to obtain confessions. Many of the accused lack access to defense lawyers.
The authorities, he said, have also refused to acknowledge rights for gay, lesbian, or transgender individuals, saying it is incompatible with sharia law. And authorities have imposed harsh sentences, including the death penalty, for posting articles on social media deemed offensive to the government. A semi-official news outlet reported that more than 480 people were flogged during the first two weeks of Ramadan for not fasting. Iran insists that only three people were flogged for failing to fast, according to the report.
Shaheed also reported that at least 46 journalists and social media activists, including Washington Post correspondent Jason Rezaian, were either detained or sentenced for peaceful activities as of April. A small number have since been released.