The death penalty continues to be used as a tool in the so-called “war on drugs”, with an alarming number of states across the globe executing people convicted on drug-related charges, in clear violation of international law, Amnesty International said ahead of the World Day against the Death Penalty (10 October).
At least 11 countries across the globe – including China, Indonesia, Iran, Malaysia and Saudi Arabia – have handed down death sentences or executed people for drug-related crimes over the past two years, while dozens of states maintain the death penalty for drug-related offences.
“It’s disheartening that so many countries are still clinging to the flawed idea that killing people will somehow end addiction or reduce crime. The death penalty does nothing to tackle crime or enable people who need help to access the treatment for drug addiction,” said Chiara Sangiorgio, Amnesty International’s death penalty expert.
International law restricts the use of the death penalty to the “most serious crimes” – generally defined to include only intentional killing. Drug crimes do not fall into this category. International law also sets the goal for states to move towards abolition of the death penalty.
Yet many states justify the use of the death penalty as a way to tackle drug trafficking or problematic drug use. These states are ignoring evidence that a response focused on human rights and public health, including prevention of substance abuse and access to treatment, has been effective to end drug-related deaths and prevent the transmission of infectious diseases. Even in relation to violent crime, there is not a shred of evidence that the threat of execution is more of a deterrent than any other form of punishment.
In Indonesia, for example, the government under President Joko Widodo vowed to use the death penalty to combat a “national drug emergency”. Fourteen people convicted of drug-related crimes have been put to death in 2015 so far and the government has said it will deny all clemency applications put forward by people convicted on drug charges.
“The use of the death penalty for drug-related crimes is far from the only concern. Shahrul Izani Suparman, for example, was just 19 years old when he was found in possession of more than 200g of cannabis, automatically presumed guilty of drug trafficking and later handed a mandatory death sentence in Malaysia,” said Chiara Sangiorgio.
In many of the countries where the death penalty is imposed for drug-related crimes, the injustice is compounded by death sentences being handed down after manifestly unfair trials. Defendants are routinely denied access to lawyers, or coerced to make “confessions” through torture or other ill-treatment which are admitted as evidence, in countries like Indonesia, Iran or Saudi Arabia.
In April 2016 the UN General Assembly, the UN main deliberative body, will gather in a Special Session on drugs to discuss the world’s drug control priorities, including the use of the death penalty for drug-related offences. The last time a special session on drugs was held was in 1998.
“The Special Session of the UN General Assembly next year will offer a critical opportunity to states to ensure that drug policies at both national and international level comply with international human rights law. States must once and for all put an end to the use of the death penalty for drug-related offences as a first step towards its full abolition,” said Chiara Sangiorgio.
• China executed more people than the rest of the world put together last year, but with death penalty figures treated as a state secret the exact number is impossible to determine. Based on the data that able to confirm, people convicted on drug-related offences make up a significant proportion of those executed. China has made tentative steps to cut down on its use of the death penalty in recent years, including by reducing the crimes punishable by death. Drug-related crimes, however, continue to attract the death penalty.
• Indonesia has executed 14 people this year, all accused of drug trafficking. This has been a regressive step for a country that had looked to be moving to end executions just a few years ago, and which has successfully made efforts to seek commutations of death sentences for Indonesian citizens on death row in other countries. The use of the death penalty in Indonesia is riddled with flaws, as suspects are routinely tortured into “confessions” or subjected to unfair trials.
• Iran is the world’s second-most prolific executioner, second only to China, and the country has put thousands of people to death for drug-related crimes over the past decades. Iran’s extremely harsh drug laws mean that a person can be sentenced to death for possessing 30g of heroin or cocaine. More than 700 executions have been carried out in 2015 alone – many of those executed are foreign nationals and people from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds.
• Drug trafficking in Malaysia carries the mandatory death sentence, and people found in possession of certain amounts of illegal substances are automatically presumed to be trafficking drugs. Malaysia does not publish information on executions, but Amnesty International’s monitoring suggests that half of the death sentences imposed in recent years are for drug trafficking convictions.
• Executions for drug-related offenses have skyrocketed in Saudi Arabia over the past three years. In 2014, almost half of all 92 people who were known to have been put to death were convicted for drug-related crimes. Saudi Arabia’s justice system lacks the most basic safeguards to ensure the right to a fair trial is protected. Often death sentences are imposed after unfair and summary proceedings, which are in some cases held in secret.