Executions in Iran rose by 25 per cent in 2021 ― including a surge in those executed for drug offences and the hanging of at least 17 women ― according to a report by two leading NGOs.
The report called for world powers negotiating with Iran on reviving its nuclear deal to make capital punishment among the "central parts of negotiations".
The rate of executions accelerated after the June election of hardline President Ebrahim Raisi, a former judiciary chief, the report by Norway's Iran Human Rights and France's Together Against the Death Penalty said, AFP reported.
Iran executes more people annually then any nation, other than China.
At least 333 people were executed last year, a 25 per cent increase compared with 267 in 2020, said the report, based on official media and sources inside Iran.
At least 126 executions were for drug-related charges, five times higher than the 2020 figure of 25.
It marked a major reversal of a trend of a decline in drug-related executions since Iran adopted amendments to its anti-narcotics law in 2017 under international pressure.
More than 80 per cent of executions were not officially announced, including all those for drug-related offences, it said.
The report "reveals an increase in the number of executions, an alarming rise in the implementation of death sentences for drug offences and an ongoing lack of transparency", the NGOs said.
IHR director Mahmood Amiry Moghaddam said there was "less scrutiny" on Iran's rights record as powers focused on bringing the nuclear negotiations to a positive conclusion.
"There will be no sustainable (deal)... unless the situation of human rights in general and the death penalty in particular, are central parts of the negotiations," he said.
At least 17 women were executed in 2021, compared with nine in 2020, while 12 were sentenced for murder and five on drug-related charges.
Concern has grown over the number of women executed on charges of murdering a husband or relative who activists believe may have been abusive.
The report said Zahra Esmaili, who shot her husband dead in 2017, was executed in February 2021 and may have had a heart attack before being hanged after watching others suffer the same fate.
In another case, Maryam Karimi was convicted for the murder of her husband and was hanged in March last year, with her daughter carrying out the execution by kicking away the stool, as is allowed under Iranian law.
'Alarm' over executions of ethnic minorities
The report also expressed concern that the execution of ethnic minorities also continued to rise last year, accounting for a disproportionately large number of those hanged.
Prisoners from the Baluch minority accounted for 21 per cent of all executions in 2021, although they only represent two to six per cent of Iran's population, it said.
Most prisoners executed for security-related charges belonged to the ethnic Arab, Baluch and Kurdish minorities, it said.
"We are alarmed at the disproportionate number of ethnic minority executions as evidenced in this report," said ECPM director Raphael Chenuil-Hazan.
In one welcome development, the report said there were no public executions in Iran in 2021 for the first time in a decade, but expressed concern they could start again.
"A society routinely exposed to such organised violence has accepted the death penalty as a legal solution, and the death penalty has consequently become a tool of repression in the government's hands," the Iranian director Mohammad Rasoulof, whose films on the impact of the death penalty in Iran have won international prizes, wrote in a preface to the report.