Outcry In Kabul Over Afghans On Death Row In Iran
By Abubakar Siddique,
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
Afghan children in a refugee camp in northeastern Iran. Some 1.5 million
are in Iran; more than 5,000 are thought to be in Iranian prisons.
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
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
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
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
Copyright (c) 2010 RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org
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