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Aaron Schachter: The nuclear deal with Iran might yet lead to better relations between Washington and Tehran, but supporters and critics of deal agree it's important to keep pressuring Tehran over other issues as well. Today, a reminder of that from Amnesty International. The human rights group says there's been a huge spike in the number of executions in Iran - almost seven hundred so far this year. Courts in Iran are known for handing down a lot of death sentences, but this year's execution rate is alarming, according to Amnesty's Elise Auerbach.
Elise Auerbach: In 2015, as of last week Iran had already executed at least six hundred and ninety-four people and at this rate Iran will far exceed the number of people who are executed in 2014 which was itself alarming. We actually strongly believe based on evidence that there were at least seven hundred and forty-three people executed in Iran in 2014 and this rate Iran will be executing more than a thousand people this year if it keeps on executing people at the same rate. So it's very alarming.
Schachter: And what are the charges for the people who are executed?
Auerbach: Well, by and large the majority of the people who are executed are executed for drug-related offenses. Iran has one of the highest rates of heroin addiction in the world. We believe the Iranian government has a right to address this huge social problem, but execution is not the answer to this problem. But another problem is the lack of due process in Iran, so a lot of the people for instance who are targeted to be executed for drug trafficking are poor, marginalized people. And then they are very often tortured in custody, they're tortured in order to extract confessions, and then these confessions are used against them in their so-called trials which do not rise to the level of international standards for fair trials.
Schachter: Do you get to interact at all at Amnesty International with Iranian officials? And what do they say when you talk to them about this?
Auerbach: Actually Amnesty International has request that they be allowed to visit Iran to conduct research missions and to be trial observers. However, the Iranians government has never granted Amnesty International access to Iran.
Schachter: Okay. Now, there has been talk of linking negotiations over Iran's nuclear program to human rights and other things. Did Amnesty bring that up at all with the US negotiating team? And do you think that should or should not have been part of the nuclear negotiations?
Auerbach: Well, Amnesty International was not in touch with the US negotiating team about this. But Amnesty International has always maintained that human rights should not be neglected in any multilateral negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program or other issues.
Schachter: So yours is one voice among many saying that. Why is it do you think that you can't make your voice heard with the US government?
Auerbach: Well, Amnesty International directs its actions and its campaigning on Iran to Iranian government officials. For instance our members worldwide send letters, petitions. One of our big successes was a few years ago when a Christian pastor, Youcef Nadarkhani, had been sentenced to be executed for apostasy. He had converted from Islam to Christianity when he was a young man, about 18 or 19 years old, and there was a huge international outcry and a concerted effort by Amnesty International and other human rights organizations and we bombarded the Iranian government with appeals. And fortunately, because I believe of the international outcry, the Iranian government did set aside the sentence against Pastor Nadarkhani and he was eventually released.
Schachter: Elise Auerbach is Amnesty International's Iran country specialist. Thanks, Elise, for joining us.
Auerbach: Oh, thank you so much for highlighting this really important issue.