By Stephanie Nebehay
GENEVA, Feb 27 (Reuters) – Iran’s justice minister said on Tuesday a recent reform of its drug laws should lead to fewer executions after the U.N. Secretary General said he remained alarmed about their high number – nearly 500 last year.
As Ali Reza Avai addressed the United Nations Human Rights Council, protesters rallied outside against the senior official who is on European Union and Swiss sanctions lists over alleged involvement in violations including arbitrary arrests and a rise in executions while he was president of the Tehran judiciary.
Avai was a senior judiciary official during the 1980s and the Mujahedin-e Khalq, an Iranian opposition group, accuses him of playing a role in the Islamic Republic’s execution of thousands of political prisoners in 1988.
Attempts by Reuters to reach the Iranian foreign and justice ministries as well as its diplomatic mission in Geneva for comment were not successful.
About 100 demonstrators gathered outside the United Nations’s European headquarters in Geneva to protest against Avai’s participation in the rights council session.
Avai told the forum that in Iran, the Islamic penal code and criminal procedure code had been revised to be more efficient and safeguard the rights of the accused.
“In this context the counter-narcotics law was amended. As a result, executions related to drug crimes will decrease remarkably,” he said. Iran is second only to China in its use of the death penalty, Amnesty International said last year.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres voiced concern earlier on Tuesday at the high number of executions in Iran, persistent reports of the use of torture to coerce confessions, the killing of anti-government protesters last December, harassment of activists and closures of social media accounts.
Iran carried out at least 482 executions last year, including five people convicted of crimes committed under the age of 18, Guterres said in a report calling for a moratorium. The executions were mainly for drug-related offences and murder, and some for “sexual offences”.
This compared with 530 executions in 2016, but Guterres said he remained “alarmed by the high number” of executions and death sentences issued by Iran’s Revolutionary Courts. “Reports that drug offenders are often deprived of basic due process and fair trial rights continue to be received,” his report said.
He also cited continuing reports pointing to “a pattern of physical or mental pressure applied upon prisoners to coerce confessions, some of them televised.
He added that Iran’s penal code continued to allow punishment by flogging including for drug and alcohol consumption, theft, adultery and mixing of the sexes in public.
“These sentences can also be imposed on children.”
Avai’s speech did not address criticism of Iran’s human rights record.
(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay with additional reporting by Marina Depetris in Geneva and Babak Dehghanpisheh in Beirut editing by Mark Heinrich)