Death Penalty

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Chronicle AM -- November 7, 2013

Portland's police chief demonstrates why local initiatives are only a start, a new Urban Institute report has ideas for reducing the federal prison population, the Irish parliament rejects marijuana legalization on its first go round, and more. Let's get to it:

Marijuana Policy

Portland Police Chief to Ignore Legalization Initiative Victory. Portland, Maine, voterd Tuesday to legalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana, but Portland Police Chief Michael Sauschuck said his officers will continue to issue citations for pot possession under state law. But Sauschuck also said Portland police didn't consider small-time pot possession a high priority even before Tuesday's vote, and the numbers back him up. In the last two 12-month periods, police there have averaged about one pot possession ticket a week.

Medical Marijuana

Medical Marijuana Groups Launch Fundraising Campaign for 2014 Arkansas Initiative. Arkansas medical marijuana advocates Arkansans for Compassionate Care (ACC) have joined forces with the national advocacy group Americans for Safe Access to raise enough money to get the Arkansas Medical Cannabis Act initiative on the 2014 ballot. The campaign kicks off Saturday in El Dorado with a concert sponsored by Budweiser (!), which will give a portion of the proceeds to ACC.

Sentencing Reform

Urban Institute Report Says Best Way to Reduce Federal Prison Population is Modify Sentencing, Prosecution Policies. A new report from the Urban Institute, Stemming the Tide: Strategies to Reduce the Growth and Cut the Cost of the Federal Prison System, concludes that "reducing the number of drug offenders is the quickest way to yield an impact on both prison population and cost," and recommends changes in both prosecution ("front end") and sentencing and reentry ("back end") policies.

International

The Silk Road is Back. The anonymous online marketplace notorious as a drug-buying and -selling venue is back up and running. It went down earlier this year when FBI agents arrested its operator, Ross Ulbrict, but was up again as of yesterday.

David Nutt Calls Britain's Drug Laws an Obstacle to Research.Scientist David Nutt, the former head of the Advisory Commission on the Misuse of Drugs, says Britain's drug laws are stifling research into the benefits of drugs like marijuana and Ecstasy. "The UK has gone from being early adopters of evidence based harm reduction -- prescription heroin, needle exchanges and opiate substitute therapy -- to lagging behind many countries across the globe that are modifying their drug policies to better reflect advances in our understanding of drugs," he told Forbes. Nutt, who was fired from the commission over his views on drug policy, recently won the John Maddox Prize, which is awarded for courage in promoting science and evidence on a matter of public interest in the face of hostility.

Irish Parliament Rejects Marijuana Legalization. The Irish Dail (parliament) soundly rejected a bill to legalize marijuana Wednesday. The private member's motion filed by TD Luke "Ming" Flanagan was defeated on a vote of 111-8. Still, the occasion marked the first time the Dail has seriously debated marijuana policy.

Czech Activists Denounce Grow Shop Raids, Plan Protests. The Czech marijuana reform group Legalizace has denounced Monday's mass raids on grow shops as "an absolutely unacceptable and scandalous infringement upon civil rights and freedoms" and is calling for a protest Saturday evening at Prague's Old Town Square.

Iran Drug Executions Continue. The Islamic Republic of Iran is the world's leading executioner of drug offenders, and this month is no different. According to the anti-death penalty group Hands Off Cain, which monitors Iranian press reports, 11 people have been hung for drug offenses so far this month, and we haven't even finished the first week. The annual number of people executed for drug offenses in Iran is in the hundreds.

Iran Drug Execution Frenzy Continues This Year

Last Wednesday, three men convicted of drug related charges were hanged in the prison in the Iranian city of Isfahan, state media reported. The prisoners died unnamed; only the charges and the fact of their execution were mentioned.

That's par for the course for the Islamic Republic, which in recent years has emerged as one of the world's most prolific executioners of drug offenders. Hundreds were sent to the gallows for drug offenses last year (a final tally isn't in yet) and nearly 500 the year before that, according to Iranian human rights sources and state media reports compiled by the anti-death penalty group Hands Off Cain. 21 more were executed in January alone, bringing the total so far this year to 24.

It's a grim litany:

  • Five prisoners executed January 30 at the prison in Kerman for "armed trafficking of 53 kilograms and 250 grams of opium."
  • One man hanged January 28 at the prison in Mianeh for selling 890 grams of crack. In addition to being executed, this unnamed man was fined $3 million rials for being a drug addict.
  • Six prisoners, including two women and one Afghan, hanged January 27 in Esfahan after being convicted of drug trafficking.
  • One man identified only as "Ch.P." hanged January 24 at Sharoos Prison for trafficking 1.94 kilograms of morphine.
  • Three prisoners identified only by their initials fined, lashed, and hanged January 23 at Qazvin Prison for "possession and trafficking of narcotic drugs."
  • Two prisoners, "M. Sh." and M. F.," hanged January 16 at Semnan Prison for trafficking 6.732 grams of crack and 1,739 grams of crack and 30.8 grams of crystal meth, respectively.
  • Two prisoners hanged January 6 in Khomarabad for "possession and trafficking of drugs."
  • One unnamed prisoner hanged January 2 in the prison at Yasouj for trafficking 20,050 ampules of heroin and 74,917 "psychotropic pills."

The practice of imposing the death penalty for drug offenses is frowned upon by the United Nations, a stance embraced by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime.

"UNODC advocates the abolition of the death penalty and calls upon Member States to follow international standards concerning prohibition of the death penalty for offenses of a drug-related or purely economic nature," the international agency said in 2010 report (see page eight).

The Iranian resort to the death penalty for drug offenses has attracted international condemnation from the likes of Amnesty International and the Norway-based human rights group Iran Human Rights, which in 2011 helped launch the International Campaign Against the Death Penalty in Iran.

More broadly, Harm Reduction International has an ongoing Death Penalty Project aimed at the 32 countries that have laws on the books allowing the death penalty for drug offenses. Opponents of the death penalty for drug offenses argue that such statutes violate UN human rights laws, which say the death penalty can be applied only for "the most serious crimes."

Iran

Indonesian Court Gives British Grandmother Death for Drugs

An Indonesian court last Tuesday sentenced a British woman to death for trying to smuggle about 10 pounds of cocaine into the resort island of Bali, the anti-death penalty group Hands off Cain reported. Lindsay Sandiford, 56, cried when she heard the sentence, but had no other comment before being led back to jail.

Sandiford had been arrested upon arrival in Bali's international airport in May, when authorities found 4.8 kilograms of cocaine in the lining of her suitcase. She told authorities a criminal gang had threatened her and her children if she didn't transport the drugs, which had a street value of $2.5 million.

The practice of imposing the death penalty for drug offenses is frowned upon by the UN, which considers it a human rights violation. That stance is even embraced by th UN Office on Drugs and Crime. "UNODC advocates the abolition of the death penalty and calls upon Member States to follow international standards concerning prohibition of the death penalty for offenses of a drug-related or purely economic nature," the international agency said in 2010 report (see page eight).

While Indonesia has notoriously harsh drug laws -- it is among the nations listed by Harm Reduction International's Death Penalty Project as both having and using the death penalty for drug offenses -- Sandiford's sentence was harsher than expected.

Two other Britons charged in the case received lesser sentences (a fourth awaits sentencing), and prosecutors had recommended only 15 years in prison, but judges at the Denpasar District Court said there was no reason for a light sentence. She had damaged Bali's reputation as a tourist destination, they said.

Sandiford joins an estimated 114 other prisoners on Indonesia's death row, most of them convicted of drug offenses. At least 40 death row inmates are foreigners, including several Australians.

Since 1998, five foreigners have been executed in Indonesia, all for drug offenses. The good news is that Indonesia hasn't actually executed anyone since 2008, when 10 people went to the gallows.

Indonesia

Singapore Death Row Drug Defendants Can Now Seek Review

Drug traffickers and other death row inmates in Singapore can now seek review of their death sentences after changes to the island city-state's mandatory death sentence went into effect with the new year, the anti-death penalty group Hands Off Cain reported. Some 32 people whose appeals had already ended sit on death row there; it is unclear how many are drug traffickers.

the gallows (wikimedia.org)
Last month, amendments to the Penal Code, Criminal Procedure Code, and Misuse of Drugs Act were approved that allow death row prisoners to introduce new evidence to show that their cases satisfy the conditions for a life sentence instead of death.

Before that, murder and drug trafficking above certain amounts garnered mandatory death sentences. Now, drug trafficking convicts who were only couriers and who cooperated substantially with authorities can seek review of their death sentences, as can people convicted of murder, unless that killing was the equivalent of first-degree murder in the US.

Under Singapore law, people sentenced to life in prison can seek review of their sentences after serving 20 years.

According to Harm Reduction International's Death Penalty Project, Singapore is one of a group of six "high application states," or countries that both have the death penalty on the books for drug offenses and actually impose it. The others are China, Iran, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, and Vietnam.

Singapore
Singapore

Singapore Eases Death Penalty in Some Drug Cases

The parliament of Singapore has approved legislation abolishing mandatory death sentences in some drug trafficking cases. The action came last Wednesday, according to a press release from the Singapore Attorney-General's Chambers.

Singapore skyline (wikitravel.org)
Under the reform, judges will be able to commute some death sentences to sentences of life in prison. Before, judges were forced to impose the death penalty on persons trafficking drugs above certain specified quantities.

The reform will allow judges to avoid imposing the death penalty only if specified conditions are met. Those conditions are if the defendant was no more than a drug courier and prosecutors certify that he "has substantively assisted the Central Narcotics Bureau to disrupt drug trafficking activities within or outside Singapore, or the accused proves that he was suffering from such abnormality of mind that it substantially impaired his mental responsibility for committing the offense."

While human rights groups have called for the abolition of the death penalty in Singapore, the government there has called it a deterrent to serious crime. According to Harm Reduction International's 2010 report, The Death Penalty for Drug Offenses, Singapore is one of the states with a "high commitment" to the death penalty for drug offenses, meaning not only does it have the death penalty on the books, but it uses it. Other countries with a "high commitment" to the death penalty for drug offenses are China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia and Vietnam.

The Attorney-General's Chamber, which oversees all criminal prosecutions in the East Asian city-state, said that 34 people are currently on death row for either murder or drug offenses, although it didn't specify how many were from which category. All of those on death row can now appeal their sentences, the prosecutor's office said.

Singapore
Singapore

Singapore to Relax Death Penalty for Some Drug Traffickers

Singapore, once famously called "Disneyland with the death penalty" by author William Gibson, will move to relax the imposition of mandatory death sentences for drug traffickers.  The wealthy Southeast Asian city-state's deputy prime minister said Monday the government will produce a draft law by year's end that will give judges more discretion in some drug trafficking and murder cases, Reuters reported.

Singapore (wikimedia.org)
Singapore, which was been ruled by the same party since 1965, is a notoriously crime-averse society that subjects even minor offenders to punishments including caning. It has a zero-tolerance policy toward drugs. Amnesty International and other human rights groups estimate it has hanged hundreds of people, including dozens of foreigners, for drug offenses since 1990. 

Singapore has a mandatory death sentence for anyone found guilty of importing, exporting or trafficking in more than 500 grams of cannabis, 200 grams of cannabis resin or more than 1,000 grams of cannabis mixture; trafficking in more than 30 grams of cocaine; trafficking in more than 15 grams of heroin; and trafficking in excess of 250 grams of methamphetamine The mandatory death penalty for drugs was introduced in a 1975 Amendment to the Misuse of Drugs Act 1973 and was subsequently broadened.

But given the evolution of "our society's norms and expectations," the government will introduce the reforms, Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean told parliament. "While there is a broad acceptance that we should be tough on drugs and crime, there is also increased expectation that where appropriate, more sentencing discretion should be vested in the courts."

But not too much discretion. Escape from the mandatory death penalty would only be available to low-level couriers or those who have mental issues, Teo explained. The drug courier would have to show that he had no other role in supply or distribution.

"We also propose to give the courts the discretion to spare a drug courier from the death penalty if he has a mental disability which substantially impairs his appreciation of the gravity of the act, and instead sentence him to life imprisonment with caning," Teo said.

It's not that the government is going soft, Teo emphasized. "In particular, the mandatory death penalty will continue to apply to all those who manufacture or traffic in drugs -- the kingpins, producers, distributors, retailers - and also those who fund, organize or abet these activities," he said.

In 2010, the International Harm Reduction Association's Death Penalty Project identified Singapore as one of the nations highly committed to the use of the death penalty for drug offenses. Also included in that category are China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam, and Malaysia. Another 26 countries, including the US, either actually execute some drug offenders or have laws on the books allowing for their execution.

But Singapore has been slowly shifting. While its customs forms still bluntly warn incoming travelers of "death for drug traffickers," the government has suspended all executions since it began a review last year.

Perhaps those other "highly committed" drug offense death penalty states will take notice.

Singapore
Singapore

Iran Executed Nearly 500 Drug Offenders Last Year

The Norwegian-based human rights group Iran Human Rights (IHR) has presented its annual report on the death penalty in the Islamic Republic and announce that at least 676 people were executed there last year. Of those, 480, or 71%, were executed for drug offenses, IHR said.

public mass execution in Iran, 2008 (ncr-iran.org)
The count of 676 executions was based on information reported by official Iranian news, other independent sources, or high-ranking officials in the Iranian judiciary. IHR said that the actual number of executions is "probably much higher" than that figure.

Of the 676 executions tallied by IHR, only 416, or 62%, were reported by official media or high-ranking officials. The group said some executions are not announced by state media, but lawyers and family members were notified prior to the execution. In other cases of "secret" executions, not even family and lawyers are notified. IHR left more than 70 additional reported executions off its tally because of difficulty in confirming details.

Drug offenses were far and away the most common death penalty charges. More than five times as many people were hung for drug crimes as for rape (13%) and more than 10 times as many as for murder (7%). Some 4% were executed for being "enemies of God," 1% for acts against chastity, and in 3% of the cases, no charge was made public.

Situated next door to Afghanistan, supplier of nearly 90% of the world's illicit opium and heroin, Iran has been waging a fierce "war on drugs" against smugglers and traffickers transiting the country on the way to European markets. But much of that opium and heroin is destined for Iran itself, which suffers one of the world's highest opiate addiction rates.

While China, the world's leading executioner state, may execute more drug offenders -- the numbers are hard to come by because China doesn't report them -- Iran leads the world in executions per capita, both for drug offenses and all offenses combined.

Last year, IHR helped launch the International Campaign Against the Death Penalty in Iran. More broadly, Harm Reduction International has an ongoing Death Penalty Project aimed at the 32 countries that have laws on the books allowing the death penalty for drug offenses. Opponents of the death penalty for drug offenses argue that such statutes violate UN human rights laws, which say the death penalty can be applied only for "the most serious crimes."

Iran

Amnesty International Condemns Iran Drug Executions

Amnesty International has called on Iran to stop executing people for drug offenses, saying the Islamic Republic has embarked on "a killing spree of staggering proportions."

Afghan police guard the Iranian Embassy during January 2011 protests against Iranian executions of Afghans (wikimedia.org
In a new report, Addicted to Death: Executions for Drug Offenses in Iran, the London-based human rights group said "at least 488 people have been executed for alleged drug offenses so far in 2011, a nearly threefold increase on the 2009 figures, when Amnesty International recorded at least 166 executions for similar offenses."

Bordering Afghanistan and its bountiful opium poppy crop, Iran is burdened with one of the world's highest rates of opiate addiction and drug-related deaths. It is also a key transshipment point for Afghan opium and heroin bound for European markets.

"To try to contain their immense drug problem, the Iranian authorities have carried out a killing spree of staggering proportions, when there is no evidence that execution prevents drug smuggling any more effectively than imprisonment," said Amnesty's Interim Middle East and North Africa deputy director, Ann Harrison. "Drug offenses go much of the way to accounting for the steep rise in executions we have seen in the last 18 months," Harrison said.

Amnesty said it began to receive credible reports of a new wave of drug executions in the middle of 2010, including reports of mass executions at Vakilabad Prison in Mashhad, with one, on August 4, 2010, involving at least 89 people. While Iran officially acknowledged 253 executions in 2010, of which 172 were for drug offenses, Amnesty said it has credible reports of another 300 executions, "the vast majority believed to be for drug-related offenses."

"Ultimately, Iran must abolish the death penalty for all crimes, but stopping the practice of executing drug offenders, which violates international law, would as a first step cut the overall number significantly," said Harrison.

Iran maintains that the death penalty is critical for maintaining law and order and that it is applied only after scrupulous legal proceedings. But Amnesty said it had received credible reports of executions without trial, of confessions achieved by torture, and of failure to notify families -- or even inmates -- of impending execution. It said those executed tended to be poor or from minority groups or outside the country, and that some 4,000 Afghans were on death row for drug offenses.

Iran receives significant international support in its war on drugs. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime has provided $22 million since 2005 to support training for Iranian anti-drug forces, while the European Union is providing $12.3 million for an Iran-based project to strengthen regional anti-drug cooperation. Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Ireland, and Japan have all provided anti-drug assistance to Iran via UNODC programs.

The UNODC technical assistance program is supposed to include work to promote reforming the Iranian justice system to bring it in line with international standards. But when he visited Iran in July, UNODC executive director Yury Fedetov didn't mention the rising number of executions as he praised Iran's anti-drug efforts.

"All countries and international organizations helping the Iranian authorities arrest more people for alleged drugs offenses need to take a long hard look at the potential impact of that assistance and what they could do to stop this surge of executions," said Harrison. "They cannot simply look the other way while hundreds of impoverished people are killed each year without fair trials, many only learning their fates a few hours before their deaths."

Iran

India Court Nixes Mandatory Death Penalty for Drug Offenses

In a decision handed down last Thursday, the Bombay High Court struck down the mandatory death penalty for some drug offenses as unconstitutional. It becomes the first court anywhere in the world to do so, according to the Indian Harm Reduction Network (IHRN), which petitioned the court for the ruling.

The Bombay High Court in Mumbai (Image via Wikimedia.org)
The Bombay High Court is one of 22 regional high courts and has jurisdiction over the states of Maharashtra and Goa. It the equivalent of a US federal court of appeals.

Section 31A of the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) Act imposed a mandatory death sentence for a second offense of drug trafficking or possession of more than a specified amount of drugs. Now, courts in Maharastra and Goa can still impose the death penalty for those drug offenses, but they are not required to.

The decision came in the case of Ghulam Mohammed Malik, a Kashmiri man sentenced to death by the Special NDPS Court in Mumbai in February. He had been convicted of a second offense of smuggling charas (cannabis resin).

THE IHRN intervened in the case, arguing that the mandatory death sentence did not allow the court to take into consideration individual circumstances or mitigating factors. The IHRN told the high court the mandatory death penalty was arbitrary, excessive and disproportionate to the crime of dealing in drugs.

"The order marks an important advance in drug policy and anti-death penalty campaigns," said Anand Grover, director of the Lawyers Collective, who argued the case for IHRN. "We will examine the decision fully to assess whether striking down the death penalty, as was done by the Supreme Court for Section 303 of the Indian Penal Code, would have been more appropriate."

Across the world, 32 countries impose capital punishment for offenses involving narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances. Of these, 13 countries (including India until today) prescribe mandatory death sentences for drug crimes. In countries like Iran and China that actually carry out executions, drug offenders constitute the vast majority of those executed. In May last year, the Court of Appeal in Singapore upheld the mandatory death sentence imposed upon a young Malaysian for possession of heroin.

"This is a positive development, which signals that courts have also started to recognize principles of harm reduction and human rights in relation to drugs. It is not utopia, but it is a giant step," said IHRN head Luke Samson.

"The Court has upheld at the domestic level what has been emphasized for years by international human rights bodies -- capital drug laws that take away judicial discretion are a violation of the rule of law," said Rick Lines, executive director of Harm Reduction International (formerly the International Harm Reduction Association) and author of The Death Penalty for Drug Offenses: A Violation of International Human Rights Law"India's justice system has affirmed that it is entirely unacceptable for such a penalty to be mandatory. This will set a positive precedent for judicial authorities in the region, which is rife with draconian drug laws."

For more information about the resort to the death penalty for drug offenses and efforts to combat it, visit Harm Reduction International's Death Penalty Project.

Mumbai
India

Iran to Hang 300 for Drug Trafficking

Three hundred people convicted of drug trafficking offenses are on death row in Iran, the Islamic Republic's judiciary said Monday. According to the anti-death penalty group Hands Off Cain, at least 126 people have already been hanged for drug offenses so far this year.

The hangman has been -- and will be -- getting a real work out in Iran. (Image via Wikimedia.org)
"For 300 drug-related convicts, including those who were in possession of at least 30 grams of heroin, execution verdicts have been issued," said Tehran prosecutor-general Abbas Jafari Dolatabadi, according to a Reuters report.

An annual British report on human rights put the number executed in Iran last year at more than 650, up from 388 in 2009. Of last year's executions, a whopping 590 were for drug trafficking, according to that report.

Members of the Iranian government have confirmed that drug executions make up a huge part of all executions, but added that if the West was unhappy with the killings, Iran could simply quit enforcing its drug laws.

"The number of executions in Iran is high because 74% of those executed are traffickers in large quantities of opium from Afghanistan bound for European markets," said Mohammad Javad Larijani, head of Iran's Supreme Council for Human Rights, during a press conference in May.

That press conference came after a meeting with representatives of South Africa, which had criticized Iran's quick resort to the death penalty.

"There is an easy way for Iran and that is to close our eyes so drug traffickers can just pass through Iran to anywhere they want to go," he said."The number of executions in Iran would drop 74%. That would be very good for our reputation."

[Editor's note: That's actually not the worst idea.]

For information on ongoing efforts to curtail the use of the death penalty for drug offenses, visit the International Harm Reduction Association's Death Penalty Project.

Iran

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