Iranian media say thousands of prisoners awaiting execution for drug crimes could be spared after the judiciary said previous death-row convictions should be reviewed following a softening in the country's law.
Judiciary chief Ayatollah Sadegh Larijani on January 9 ordered judges to halt death sentences for some prisoners and to review their cases, the judiciary's Mizanonline news agency reported on January 10.
Mizanonline, pro-reform Shargh newspaper, and other dailies quoted Larijani as saying that the move "clarifies the fate of some 5,000 sentenced to death for drug trafficking" and that it would be applied retroactively.
He added that most of the convicts will see their death sentences commuted to jail terms of 25 to 30 years.
An unknown number of people are executed every year in Iran, but it is estimated by rights human groups to be in the hundreds, mainly for drug crimes.
Amnesty International has said that in 2016, Iran had the second-highest number of executions behind China.
Magdalena Mughrabi, Amnesty’s Middle East and North Africa deputy director, said the new rules could "spare hundreds from the gallows," but she added that Iran "must stop using the death penalty for drug-related offenses with a view to eventually abolishing it for all crimes."
The judiciary’s announcement comes a few months after the Iranian parliament raised the threshold on the amount of drugs that would be considered a death-penalty case.
The new law raised the amounts that can trigger the death penalty from 30 grams to 2 kilograms for the production and distribution of narcotics such as heroin, cocaine, and amphetamines.
For natural substances such as opium and marijuana, the levels have been raised tenfold to 50 kilograms.
The amendment maintains the death penalty for those who head drug-trafficking gangs, exploit people below the age of 18 in doing so, or carry or draw firearms while in the commission of drug-related crimes.
Neighboring Afghanistan produces 90 percent of the world's opium, which is extracted from poppy resin and refined to make heroin, and Iran is a major transit route for the drug to western Asia and Europe.