Accessibility links

Breaking News

Outcry In Kabul Over Afghans On Death Row In Iran

Afghan refugees in Tehran line up to vote in their country's elections. Some 1.5 million Afghan refugees are in Iran; more than 5,000 are thought to be in Iranian prisons.
Afghan refugees in Tehran line up to vote in their country's elections. Some 1.5 million Afghan refugees are in Iran; more than 5,000 are thought to be in Iranian prisons.
For 16-year-old Jandarshah Nabizada, a villager from Afghanistan's northern Takhar Province, life has become a waiting game. He's a foreigner sitting on death row in a land known for its unstinting use of the ultimate sentence.

Speaking by telephone to RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan, Nabizada explains how he ended up in a fortified prison in Yazd, central Iran.

"I was arrested with 200 to 300 grams of [narcotics] and sentenced to death,” Nabizada says. “We just wait. Life for the Afghan prisoners is very difficult here."

After his arrest for drug trafficking along the Iranian-Afghan border, Nabizada was swiftly sentenced to death, joining many other Afghans who have found themselves on the wrong side of the law in neighboring Iran.

Just how many, however, was never known until recently, when a delegation of Afghan lawmakers returned from Iran with news that thousands of Afghans are imprisoned there -- more than half of them on death row.

Iranian authorities deny that figure, but the announcement has caused an uproar in Afghanistan, where both houses of parliament debated the issue last week and sought a way to secure the return of prisoners like Nabizada.

Economic hardship and insecurity have led many Afghans to look across the country's porous 1,000-kilometer border with Iran. Nearly 1 million Afghans are documented as refugees in Iran, and estimates suggest that more than half a million more undocumented Afghan refugees live there.

Some are employed as manual laborers, but many find themselves ferrying narcotics from Afghanistan, which feeds much of the world's heroin trade, to Iran, which is reported to have 3 million heroin addicts and is used as a transit route to the lucrative Western European drug market.

If arrested in Iran, which has made stopping the inflow of drugs a major priority, traffickers of even the smallest amounts of narcotics are routinely sentenced to death. According to Iranian law, possession of more than 30 grams of hard drugs like heroin can result in the death penalty. And it is not an empty threat: Iran is one of the world's leading executioners.

Calls To Bring Afghans Home

The debates in the Afghan parliament last week centered largely on how to ensure the fair treatment of Afghans living in Iran, and how to secure the return of Afghan prisoners.

Abdul Sattar Khwasi, first secretary of the lower house of the Afghan parliament, or Wolesi Jirga, led the recent delegation to Iran. Upon his return he pressed Kabul to take action to address the number of Afghans facing the death penalty in Iran.

"We have 5,630 Afghan prisoners in prisons across the Islamic Republic of Iran. Three thousand of these have been sentenced to death for various crimes,” Khwasi said. “The Justice Ministry, Attorney General's Office, the Foreign Office, the Supreme Court, and the Interior Ministry have been tasked with providing detailed information about this issue to the Afghan parliament."

Afghan Senator Zalmay, who heads the complaints commission in the upper house of the Afghan parliament, tells RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan that Afghan lawmakers raised the issue with Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad during his recent visit to Kabul.

He says that Ahmadinejad promised to help with the prisoner issue and to look after the welfare of Afghan refugees in Iran.

"Ahmadinejad made strong promises about this to the delegation of the Mashrano Jirga,” the upper house of the Afghan parliament, Zalmay said. “He told Hazrat [Sibghatullah] Mojaddedi that the judiciary in Iran follows strict laws, but I will use my influence to convince the judiciary to hand over these prisoners to the Afghan government."

Mahmud Zyaeefard, a deputy spokesman for Iran's prison organization, says the numbers on which the Afghans are basing their argument -- 5,630 prisoners, 3,000 of whom are on death row -- are simply not accurate.

"These figures are not true," the Iranian Student News Agency (ISNA) quoted Zyaeefard as saying on March 17. "As far as I know, the Attorney General's Office has not released such figures."

"We are in charge of the prisons here and it is our responsibility to come up with such figures, not the Afghans," Zyaeefard said.

A lesser number might come as a relief to Afghan Justice Minister Habiullah Ghali. He told lawmakers last week that if Tehran were to hand over thousands of Afghan prisoners, Kabul would be ill-prepared to deal with them, noting that on average Iran spends $8 a day per prisoner while Kabul spends less than $2.

RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan contributed to this report
  • 16x9 Image

    Abubakar Siddique

    Abubakar Siddique, a journalist for RFE/RL's Radio Azadi, specializes in the coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan. He is the author of The Pashtun Question: The Unresolved Key To The Future Of Pakistan And Afghanistan. He is also one of the authors of the Azadi Briefing, a weekly newsletter that unpacks the key issues in Afghanistan.