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Afghans On Iran's Death Row Describe Their Plight

An Afghan man takes empty water bottles from Afghan men in Iranian detention in the southeastern Iranian city of Zahedan (file photo). Afghan officials say more than 5,600 Afghan nationals are in Iranian prisons for alleged drug crimes.
An Afghan man takes empty water bottles from Afghan men in Iranian detention in the southeastern Iranian city of Zahedan (file photo). Afghan officials say more than 5,600 Afghan nationals are in Iranian prisons for alleged drug crimes.
Ahmad, a 16-year-old Afghan jailed in Iran, was arrested for possessing 200 grams of drugs, which he insists were planted on him. Speaking to RFE/RL by telephone from his Iranian jail cell, Ahmad, which is not his real name, says he has virtually no hope of ever getting back home alive.

"I am going to be executed here," he says. "They will for sure execute me, unless officials in Kabul can do something for me."

Ahmad is among six Afghans jailed in Iran for small-scale drug trafficking who have spoken to RFE/RL by phone. All say they are currently awaiting execution.

Given their isolation and the difficulties of reporting in Iran, it is impossible independently to confirm their accounts. In this story, their names have been changed to protect their identities.

Taken together, their stories paint a picture of a woefully inadequate criminal justice system that fails to ensure due process, especially for Afghan nationals.

A common issue emerging from the six accounts is the absence of normal criminal trials. Several of the Afghans say they were never brought to court to confront the charges against them -- a right guaranteed in Iran's constitution and penal code.

It's also a basic legal protection included in the United Nation's Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

According to the men's accounts, Iranian authorities also failed to inform them of even the simplest facts about their cases. Several said their ultimate sentences were not clearly, or even officially, communicated to them.

"I have two wives and my kids back home," says inmate Mohammad. "I have always been suffering in life, and finally ended up here."

The court and its procedures are a mystery to him. "I have never seen the court, but have been notified that I am on death row," he says. "Really, I don't know if that is true or not."

Nowhere To Turn

There are an estimated 1 1/2 million Afghans living in Iran, about one-third of them illegally.

Having left their homeland in most cases for safety or economic reasons, these immigrants labor in Iran at strenuous and poorly compensated jobs -- as gardeners, janitors, construction workers, and street vendors.

Some of them, however, earn a living through the drug trade.

An Afghan delegation to Iran last month said 5,630 Afghans are in prison there for drug crimes. They also say that 3,000 of them have been sentenced to death.

Iranian authorities have described those figures as inaccurate.

But Afghanistan, the world's largest opium producer, shares a 1,000-kilometer border with Iran, and it is through Iran that a considerable part of this drug trade passes -- for international distribution as well as local consumption.

The six prisoners who spoke to RFE/RL were allegedly involved in such trafficking.

The men complain that their consular authorities have failed to offer assistance as their cases progress through Iran's justice system.

"We don't have any hope, even [though] we have a government in Kabul today," says prisoner Rahim, who says he knows many fellow Afghans arrested in Iran. "We see our president on television and we hear he is speaking out for freedom and peace. We want to really appreciate that we have our freedom. [Yet] we Afghans die here in jail and no one knows about it. If [we] committed a crime, then our government must punish us, not the Iranians."

A Common Fate

Iran's harsh drug laws were put in place well before the Islamic revolution of 1979.

The Shah of Iran enacted the strict measures, which make possessing sufficient quantities of drugs punishable by death.

When he was in exile, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who would later found Iran's Islamic Republic, criticized those drug laws as unduly harsh. Decades later, the statutes are still on the books.

Some observers say that Afghans receive the same treatment at the hands of Iran's authorities as ordinary Iranian criminals. A high number of Afghans on Iran's death row, they say, would simply reflect the disproportionate involvement of Afghans in local drug smuggling.

However, the Afghan parliament has claimed that Afghans are being treated unfairly by the Iranian criminal justice system.

Afghan officials say three Afghan prisoners allegedly involved in drug smuggling were executed in Iran in recent weeks. Some Afghan officials have made allegations -- to which Tehran has not officially responded -- that Iran sent the bodies of more than 40 executed Afghan prisoners back to Afghanistan.

Inmate Mohammad says he may soon share their fate.

"They are controlling our phone calls, so we can't really speak with freedom. Yesterday they hanged a friend of mine -- may God have mercy on him -- and I have been notified about myself also. So they are going to hang me also. I am also sentenced to death."

with contributions from RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan and Radio Farda

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