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Police prepare a pile of drugs before an incineration ceremony in Tehran. (file photo)

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.

With reporting by the BBC, AFP, and AP
Oyub Titiyev

Working in Chechnya -- one of the most dangerous places in Russia for human-rights activists -- Oyub Titiyev has kept a low profile personally, even as his organization churns out almost weekly accounts of alleged rights abuses in the North Caucasus republic.

Titiyev, the head of the Chechnya office of the respected Memorial Human Rights Center, was detained on January 9 on drug-possession charges that he and his supporters say were trumped up to punish him for his activism.

The 60-year-old Titiyev took over the position in 2010, shortly after the abduction and murder of his predecessor, Natalya Estemirova.

"They are trying to frighten us, but I believe we will find rather a lot of people who are ready to express solidarity to defend not only Oyub but his cause as well," Aleksandr Cherkasov, chairman of Memorial's board in Moscow, told RFE/RL. "Oyub Titiyev became the head of the Grozny office of Memorial after the murder of Natasha Estemirova. He understood perfectly well what he was getting into. He is a very good man, a very strong man."

Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov (file photo)
Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov (file photo)

In 2009, the Russian government declared the end of a 10-year state of emergency in war-torn Chechnya, withdrawing most federal troops and turning over control of the republic to Ramzan Kadyrov, a former guerrilla fighter against Moscow who remade himself as an outspoken loyalist of President Vladimir Putin.

Abductions, Executions, Other Atrocities

Nonetheless, independent rights monitors from organizations such as Memorial, Human Rights Watch (HRW), and the Committee for the Prevention of Torture have regularly documented cases of illegal abductions, torture, extrajudicial executions, and other atrocities they blame on armed formations controlled by Kadyrov that have come to be called "Kadyrovtsy."

Cherkasov said that after Estemirova was killed -- her killer or killers have never been brought to justice -- Memorial decided to handle "the most difficult and problematic cases" in Chechnya using a "mobile rights group" comprising activists from other parts of the country.

Human rights activist Natalya Estemirova in Grozny in 2004.
Human rights activist Natalya Estemirova in Grozny in 2004.

Local representatives headed by Titiyev provided informational support, looked into local cases, and assisted in the follow-up work after rulings against the government by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

"As far as high-profile cases are concerned, I know journalists who had to leave Russia for a long time after they covered such cases in Chechnya," Cherkasov said. "Oyub Titiyev was not involved in such cases, but, believe me, his work was no less important."

Chechen police claim they detained Titiyev with 180 grams of marijuana in his car.

Greater Risk

The accusations mirror those leveled earlier against Kadyrov opponents. In 2014, following public criticism of Kadyrov, activist Ruslan Kutayev was sentenced to four years in prison on drug-possession charges that he flatly denied. He was released on parole late last year.

In 2016, journalist Zhalaudi Geriyev of the Caucasian Knot website was also arrested on drug charges and sentenced to three years in prison. He remains in custody.

Both Kutayev and Geriyev said they were tortured while in the hands of Chechen law enforcement.

In March 2016, Igor Kalyapin, the head of the Committee for the Prevention of Torture, was attacked and beaten in Grozny by about a dozen unknown men. Two years earlier, the organization's office in Grozny was ransacked and gutted by fire.

"Any human rights activity in Chechnya involves significantly greater risk than in any region of central Russia," Kalyapin told RFE/RL in 2016. "That is clear."

"I can't think of any regions where investigations were opposed and rights activists helping victims were pressured by the head of the region," Kalyapin added. "In Chechnya, this happens all the time."

With reporting by RFE/RL correspondents Yulia Suguyeva and Vadim Dubnov

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"Watchdog" is a blog with a singular mission -- to monitor the latest developments concerning human rights, civil society, and press freedom. We'll pay particular attention to reports concerning countries in RFE/RL's broadcast region.

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