(ISFAHAN, Iran) — Playing with his friends in a dusty alley of a remote village somewhere in the central province of Isfahan, Iran, 6-year-old Reza finally had a sparkle in his eyes after years of anguish.
Saturday morning, Reza was told that his mother, Mansoureh, who has been in prison on drug crimes for six years and was sentenced to death, might not be executed after all, thanks to a change in a drug law that has softened the punishment for some offenders.
Mansoureh and Reza’s father, Majid, were arrested and imprisoned after they were caught carrying 8 kilograms (nearly 18 pounds) of drugs. The change in the law is too late to save Majid — who was executed 14 months ago — but may save Mansoureh.
“It keeps one of his parents for him,” Zahra, Reza’s grandmother who’s been raising him, told ABC News. The death sentence for some drug-related crimes was abolished and replaced with life imprisonment or fines last fall. According to the former law, possessing 30 grams (1 ounce) of heroin or 5 kilograms (11 pounds) of opium could send offenders to the gallows.
The new law raised the threshold for capital punishment to possessing more than 50 kilograms (110 pounds) of opium, 2 kilograms (4 pounds) of heroin or 3 kilograms (7 pounds) of meth. On Tuesday, it was announced that those awaiting execution have the right to have their cases reviewed given the new law, offering hope to thousands on death row.
It’s estimated the move could save as many 5,000 who have already received a death penalty verdict, Iranian TV channel Jame Jam reported. But it could be even more.
“The new statement will return 15,000 cases back to the courts to be re-studied,” Hassan Norouzi, spokesman for the parliament’s Judiciary Committee, told Jame Jam.
Iran has the highest number of executions in the world after China, according to Amnesty International. Iran alone accounted for 66 percent of all recorded executions in the Middle East. However, executions have been on the decline. The total number of executions in the country dropped by 42 percent in 2016 — down from at least 977 to at least 567, compared to the previous year.
Iran’s hard-liner judiciary officials have always insisted that most of the capital punishments were due to drug-related crimes and carried out as a preventive measure to control drug trafficking within the country and to Europe.
While the new law may save lives, legal experts in the country said it’s unclear whether it will do anything to reduce drug-related crime.
“It will save people with minor crimes and clear backgrounds to return back to their families. And, hopefully, after their imprisonments, they will use the second chance offered to them to make a decent life,” Mehdi, 48, a lawyer who asked only to be identified by his first name, told ABC News.
However, Ahmad Hadi Abadi, 33, also a lawyer, is concerned that the new law has less preventive power. “I agree that the former law wasn’t fully effective, but the new law seems to be more helpful in fixing Iran’s image for international human rights activists, rather than preventing drug crimes,” he said.
For her part, Zahra is the happiest after hearing Mansoureh shouting out of joy in a phone call from prison saying her execution is revoked. She is also happy her grandson has hope again. “He was depressed and anxious for months after his dad’s execution. This kid would totally break if his mom was executed too,” she said.
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