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Feature: Ending the Death Penalty for Drug Offenses -- Now Is the Time, Say Human Rights, Harm Reduction Groups

In April, two Thai citizens, Sureeya Wuttisat, 45, and Asan Tong, 47, were sentenced to death in Malaysia after being convicted of trafficking about 40 pounds of marijuana. The sentence may be an outrage, but it is not a fluke. At least 16 countries in Asia apply the death penalty for some drug offenses, and an equal number in the rest of the world, including the United States, do, too.

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Death sentence is passed against a woman who was immediately executed with three other people on drugs charges. (UN International Anti-Drugs Day, 6/26/03) sina.com.cn via Amnesty International web site)
Today is the United Nations' International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking, and in recent years, China has taken to marking it by executing drug offenders. This year, China got off to an early start, killing six people for drug offenses yesterday. Last year, Indonesia joined China in the gruesome festivities, as it, too, put drug offenders to death.

This year, a consortium of human rights and harm reduction organizations are using UN anti-drug day to challenge the resort to the death penalty for drug offenses. Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the International Harm Reduction Association, and the Anti-Death Penalty Asia Network (ADPAN) have joined together to call on Asian governments to end the death penalty for drug offenses.

The groups say they do not know how many people are sentenced to death or executed because many countries in the region do not make available information on the death penalty. But a perusal of the archives of the anti-death penalty group Hands Off Cain shows that so far this year, a minimum of 69 people have been executed for drug offenses and 14 more sentenced to death.

If these publicly available accounts accurately reflect who is being sentenced to death or executed and where, Iran is by far the leading drug war executioner. (Reports from China, the other likely drug execution leader, are rare.) So far this year, Iran has executed at least 59 people for drug offenses, with China reporting eight, and Saudi Arabia two. During this same period, seven people have been sentenced to death for drug offenses in Malaysia, six in China, and one in Vietnam.

The executions and death sentences come even as the world moves toward restricting or abolishing the death penalty. Last year, only 25 countries carried out executions. And they come despite any evidence that they have any impact on drug trafficking or consumption. As the UN itself noted in 1988, 1996, and 2002, "research has failed to provide scientific proof that executions have a greater deterrent effect than life imprisonment. Such proof is unlikely to be forthcoming. The evidence as a whole gives no positive support to the deterrent hypothesis."

Countries using the death penalty for drug offenses are also violating UN human rights standards. The UN holds that the death penalty should be imposed only as an "exceptional measure" for "the most serious crimes" where "there was an intention to kill which resulted in the loss of life."

Building on a campaign to end the death penalty for drug offenses by the IHRA's HR2 (harm reduction and human rights), ADPAN, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the IHRA are using UN anti-drug day to appeal to Asian governments to:

  • Introduce an immediate moratorium on executions with a view to the abolition of the death penalty in line with UN General Assembly resolution 62/149 and 63/168 on "moratorium on the use of the death penalty";
  • Commute all death sentences, including for drug offenses;
  • Remove provisions within their domestic legislation that allow for the death penalty for drug offenses;
  • Abolish the use of mandatory sentencing in capital cases;
  • Publicize statistics on the death penalty and facts around the administration of justice in death penalty cases; and
  • Use the occasion of Anti-Drugs Day 2009 to highlight public health policies that have proven effective in reducing drug-related harms.

"The problem with the death penalty for drug offenses is that it plainly violates international law," said Human Rights Watch's Rebecca Schleifer. "The UN rapporteur has made it clear that the death penalty for drug offenses violates international human rights law."

In many countries with the death penalty for drug offenses, Schleifer noted, judicial processes are faulty and due process is lacking. In some of them, including Malaysia and Singapore, the death penalty is mandatory in some drug cases, again a violation of international standards for fair trials.

Not only does the death penalty for drug offenses not deter potential offenders, it works against reducing the harms of drug use, Schleifer said. "Our work has found time and time again that excessive punishments and repressive drug law enforcement actually drive people away from life-saving health services," she observed.

"The movement against the death penalty is one that has been long fought and one that is clearly moving in the direction of international abolition," said IHRA's Rick Lines, the author of a 2007 IHRA report on the death penalty for drug offenses. "Yet for many years, the specific issue of the death penalty for drugs has been largely invisible, both within the drug reform movement and the anti-death penalty movement. But now we are seeing a shift in that, with many more people and organizations speaking out, not only on the basis that the death penalty for drugs violate international law, but also that it epitomizes an enforcement-centered approach to drug policy that is a failure in every respect."

Today's joint statement is significant, said Lines, because it brings together major international human rights and harm reduction organizations. "This shows the potential of the death penalty issue to build bridges and working relationships between these two important movements," he said. "That will only enhance the prospects for policy and legislative change. Clearly, no government is likely to change policy before people start making those demands. We now hear those demands becoming louder and more focused."

"Government attitudes do change," said ADPAN's Andrew de Cruz, citing the abolition of the death penalty in Burundi and Togo in the last few weeks, Vietnam's reduction in the number of death penalty offenses, and changes in death penalty practices in China. He might well have also cited Iran, which despite its high number of drug executions, has hinted that it wants to reduce executions overall.

"For these changes to continue it is important to ensure we convey the messages that the death penalty violates human rights and that it does not help deter crime," de Cruz said. "When it comes to drug offences, we can make further arguments that the death penalty for drug offenses is illegal under international human rights law, and that it has actually been counterproductive to policies known to help prevent some of the harmful health consequences of drugs to individuals and societies."

Applying pressure to individual countries is only part of the campaign, said Schleifer. "We would like all of the UN human rights agencies as well as the UN Office on Drugs and Crime to speak out definitively against the use of the death penalty as a violation of international law," she said. "Last year, UNODC came close when it talked about asking states to reconsider the use of the death penalty for drug offenses, but we would like to see them step up and recognize what international law says."

Last year, the UN General Assembly issued a resolution calling for a moratorium on the death penalty, Schleifer noted. "We would like to see the UN repeat that," she said. "Not just the General Assembly, but also UNODC joining publicly."

The campaign against the death penalty for drug offenses is well underway, but it still has a long way to go. If you are reading these words on UN anti-drug day, you know that the ritual state murders to mark it have already begun.

Death Penalty: Another Month of Drug War Extremism, and America's Hands Are Bloody

The resort to the ultimate sanction for drug offenders continued apace last month, thanks to the usual suspects in the Middle East and Southeast Asia. And it continues despite a UN General Assembly call a year ago to end the death penalty for all offenses and an international campaign to end it for drug offenses that began earlier this year.

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International Anti-Drugs Day drug burn, Tehran
Here, thanks to the anti-death penalty group Hands Off Cain are the latest victims of drug war extremism. Of particular note and concern to Americans should be two cases -- November 14 in Yemen and November 25 in Thailand -- where the American military or American anti-drug personnel helped send drug suspects to their likely deaths:

Indonesia -- November 6: The News Agency of Nigeria reported that eighteen Nigerians sentenced to death for drug trafficking in Indonesia have opted for the review of their cases. Sources at the Nigerian embassy say that their lawyers have filed the appeals with the prosecutor. "They opted for the review of their cases instead of seeking for clemency for fear of being denied the clemency by the authority. "The Indonesian President hardly grants clemency for drug convicts. Once he turns down pleas for clemency on behalf of convicts twice execution is imminent and automatic,'' the source said. And by filing for a review of their cases, "they can still prolong the finality of their conviction and buy some time." The Nigerian Ambassador to Indonesia, Alhaji Ibrahim Mai-Sule, said he is optimistic about the visit of the Special Envoy to President Yar'Adua, Chief Ojo Maduekwe who came to seek clemency for the convicted Nigerians.

Yemen -- November 14: A court in Sanaa, Yemen, sentenced an Iranian to death for drug trafficking and imposed 25-year prison sentences each on 11 other Iranians and a Pakistani, officials said. Ayub Mohamed Houd, 33, who faces the death penalty, and his 12 accomplices were found guilty of bringing 1.5 tons of hashish into Yemeni territorial waters, hidden in the hold of a ship coming from Iran. The prosecution said the 13 men were interdicted by a US navy warship, which found the drugs on board their boat. They were handed over to the Yemeni authorities after the destruction of all but 20kg of drugs. At the opening of the trial on October 12, the men, whose statements in Farsi were translated into Arabic, denied the charges and said the US sailors threw a large quantity of fish into the sea from the hold.

Malaysia -- November 15: A Malaysian court sentenced two Indonesians, Mohamad Idris and Jainuddin, to death for drug trafficking, Antara newswire reported. The Kuala Lumpur based court found the two defendants guilty of distributing marijuana and were found to be in a possession of 5.7 kilogram of marijuana when they were arrested in September 2002. The two claimed that they were innocent and did not know the content of a package that they were then delivering to a person they identified as Tengku Yan, but they were never able to prove the existence of Yan.

Iran -- November 22: An Iranian man convicted of drug trafficking was hanged in the southern port city of Bandar Abbas, a newspaper reported. The man, identified only by his first name Majid, was hanged for smuggling more than 300 kilos of morphine, Etemad newspaper said, without specifying when the execution took place.

Iran--November 24: Iran hanged three men convicted of drug trafficking in a prison in the Iranian southeastern city of Zahedan, the official IRNA news agency reports. The men, identified as Hossein Nahtani, Abdollah Dahmardeh and Mohammad Barahoui, were all found guilty of smuggling heroin, the report adds. Nahtani was convicted of trafficking 1.09-kilograms [2.4 pounds] of heroin, while Dahmardeh and Barahoui were sentenced for smuggling 3.8-kg [8.3 pounds] and 5.5-kg [12 pounds], respectively.

Thailand -- November 25: Two Israelis convicted of drug trafficking were sentenced to death by a Thai court. The two men plan to appeal the sentence. The Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem confirmed the report. Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni announced that she may intervene in the affair should the sentences not be changed. The two Israelis, 34-year-old Vladimir Akronik and 37-year-old Alon Mahluf, were detained in the vicinity of Bangkok's Kao San Road in possession of 23,000 ecstasy pills about a year ago. Thai media reported that the two arrived in Thailand from Europe and were detained after authorities received information about them from American officials.

Saudi Arabia -- November 28: A Saudi Arabian man and a stateless Arab convicted of drug trafficking were beheaded by the sword in Riyadh. Mohammad bin Karim al-Anzi, the Saudi, and Sadok al-Khalidi were found to have introduced large quantities of hallucinogenic pills on the Saudi market, the Interior Ministry said, quoted by the state news agency SPA.

Iran -- November 29: Iran hanged two men convicted of drug trafficking in a prison in the southeastern city of Zahedan, Fars news agency reported. The report identified the two as H.F. and A.N., and said they were found guilty of smuggling 11kgs of heroin and 387kgs of opium respectively.

Death Penalty: Iran Bars Executions of Minors for Drug Offenses, Continues to Execute Adults

The Islamic Republic of Iran will not execute minors for drug offenses, but will keep capital punishment for those convicted of murder. The policy change came in a judicial directive that was issued last year, but only made public last week. Iran executes more juveniles than any other country in the world, accounting for two-thirds of all underage executions worldwide, according to human rights groups.

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ceremonial drug burning for UN Anti-Drugs Day, Tehran
"The new directive bans execution of under 18 criminals only if they have committed crimes related to narcotics that carry death penalty," Deputy State Public Prosecutor Hossein Zabhi told the Associated Press. "Life imprisonment will be the punishment for juveniles convicted of first rate drug crimes," said Zabhi.

Zahbi added that no one under 18 has ever been executed for a drug offense in Iran. There are currently some 120 minors on death row there.

Iranian human rights activists welcomed the move, but said it was not sufficient. "Human rights activists won't give up the fight until execution of under 18 people is abolished altogether in Iran," said Mohammed Mostafaei, a lawyer who launched a campaign against the execution of juveniles.

Meanwhile, it is business as usual at Iranian gallows. According to the anti-death penalty group Hands Off Cain, four men convicted of trafficking three kilograms of heroin were hanged Monday at a prison in the southeastern city of Zahedan. Zahedan is the capital of restive Sistan-Baluchistan province bordering Pakistan and Afghanistan, which is a key transit route for drugs heading from Afghanistan to markets in Europe and the Middle East.

Death Penalty: Malaysia to Hang Three for Marijuana Trafficking, Executions Continue in Middle East

Twice in the past two weeks, courts in Malaysia have condemned people to death for marijuana trafficking offenses. Meanwhile, both Iran and Yemen have executed drug offenders in the past three weeks. Except where otherwise linked, information in this article comes from the global anti-death penalty group Hands Off Cain.

In Malaysia, the High Court Wednesday handed down death sentences to two men, Kairil Anuar Abdul Rahman, 34, and Afendi Adam, 28, for trafficking a little under two pounds of pot six years ago. The pair, a restaurant worker and a painter, respectively, were arrested in March 2002 for selling 971 grams of marijuana. Judicial Commissioner Ridwan Ibrahim said the court had no choice but to impose the death sentences after the men were found guilty. Attorneys for the pair are expected to appeal both the convictions and the sentences.

Two weeks earlier, the Shah Alam Higher Court imposed the death sentence on an Indonesian immigrant, Junaidi Nurdin, 32, for selling 979 grams of pot. Junaidi was arrested in April 2004 after he sold the stuff to an undercover policeman at a restaurant in Shah Alam. He, too, is expected to appeal.

Meanwhile, the execution of drug offenders continued apace in the Middle East. In Yemen, convicted Pakistani drug trafficker Birkhan Afridibar Hussein, 50, was executed at the Central Prison in Sanaa on September 17 after his death sentence was approved by the president of the republic. And in Iran, a man known only as Taher H. was hanged Tuesday in the northern city of Hamedan. Taher H. had been imprisoned on drug charges there, but escaped, only to be caught again with 530 pounds of heroin.

The executions of nonviolent drug offenders, almost exclusively in Southeast Asia and the Middle East, have added momentum to calls for a global moratorium on the death penalty and particularly against using the death penalty for drug offenses.

Death Penalty: More Executions in Iran, Saudi Arabia

Even as a worldwide campaign to end the death penalty for drug offenses gears up, the resort to the ultimate sanction continues apace, especially in Southeast Asia and the Middle East. According to reports compiled by the anti-death penalty group Hands Off Cain, this month Southeast Asia is reporting no drug executions, but it's a different story in the Middle East, especially in Iran.

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International Anti-Drugs Day drug burn, Tehran
But not just Iran. On August 21, Saudi Arabia got in on the action, executing two Pakistani nationals for smuggling drugs. The pair were beheaded by the sword after they were caught smuggling heroin in the eastern city of Damman. That was the 63rd execution this year in the country, with drug offenders accounting for between a third and one half of them.

Meanwhile, in the Islamic Republic, the executioner has been busy this month. On August 7, three men convicted of drug trafficking and murder were executed in a prison in the holy city of Qom. Authorities provided no details of the murder for which they were convicted, but said they were caught with 1,080 kilograms of opium. They were identified only by first names.

Four days later, three unnamed convicted drug traffickers were hanged in a prison in the southeastern city of Zahedan. They had been caught with 30 kilos of morphine and 22 kilos of heroin.

Things got really busy last week. On August 20, two men were hanged after being convicted of drug smuggling inside a Tehran prison. One of them had been sentenced to life in 2007 for smuggling, but was upgraded after being caught doing it again while imprisoned. That same day, yet another drug trafficker was executed in Zahedan. Bahrum Nikpur was hanged after being found guilty of possessing 14 kilos of opium and six kilos of heroin. Also that same day, four people were hanged for rape and drug trafficking in an unspecified prison in Iran.

It is not clear if there were four drug trafficking rapists, whether it was rapists and drug traffickers executed together, or how many were rapists and how many were drug traffickers. All the same to anti-drug zealots, perhaps.

Death Penalty: More Executions in China, Saudi Arabia

Despite a global trend toward abolition of the death penalty, a number of countries continue not only to use the ultimate sanction, but to apply it to nonviolent drug offenders. The latest round-up of drug offender executions from the anti-death penalty group Hands Off Cain includes the following:

  • Chinese media reported on July 11 that 10 people were executed in central China as "heinous criminals that seriously violated social law and order." Some were executed for murder, some for drug trafficking offenses. It is unclear how many of the 10 were drug offenders.
  • China was back at it again last week, when state media reported three members of an international drug trafficking group were executed in east China. They were accused of smuggling drugs into the country. No names were given for the executed Chinese drug offenders.
  • The Saudi Arabian official news agency reported Thursday that a convicted Nigerian drug trafficker was beheaded by the sword in Mecca. Shuaib Ali Mohammed had previous drug trafficking convictions and got a death sentence for trafficking cocaine.

Hands Off Cain presented its annual report on the state of the death penalty late this week. Look for an article here next week on how things are looking in 2008 and the state of the movement to end the death penalty for drug offenses.

Death Penalty: Indonesia Gives Go-Ahead for More Executions

Indonesian authorities executed two Nigerian men, Iwachekwu Okoye and Hansen Anthony Nwaliosa, for drug trafficking on International Anti-Drug Day, June 26. They were the first executions of drug offenders in the island nation since 2004, but Indonesian authorities are warning they won't be the last.

Executions for drug offenders had been on hiatus, but that has changed since the county's Constitutional Court upheld the death penalty for drug offenses late last year. Indonesia had suspended executions for drug offenders in 2006 while the court was considering the constitutional case and had not executed a drug offender for two years prior to that.

Now, the country's attorney general is warning drug offenders on death row their days could be numbered. In a statement late last month, Attorney General Hendarman Supandji said executions would be expedited for the 58 drug offenders sentenced to death there.

That could still take some time, Deputy Attorney General A. Ritonga told the New York Times on Sunday. "Death row inmates will only be executed according to the law, after their appeals are exhausted," he said.

Ritonga added that death row prisoners can apply for clemency. But Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, has publicly said he will not pardon drug offenders.

Death Penalty: More Executions, More Death Sentences, A Glimmer of Hope in Vietnam

The resort to the death penalty for drug offenses continues apace. And it is the usual suspects. Here's what's gone on so far this month, with a glimmer of potential good news from Vietnam. (All information below comes from the anti-death penalty group Hands Off Cain.)

June 9: Iran hanged a man convicted of drug trafficking in the northeastern province of North Khorasan, the Jomhouri Eslami newspaper reported. The unidentified man was executed in the prison of Bojnourd city for buying and trafficking four kilos of crystal methamphetamine.

June 10: The Nigerian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Chief Ojo Maduekwe, told reporters that no fewer than 60 Nigerian nationals face death sentences for drug offenses in Indonesia alone. The foreign minister had earlier pleaded with Indonesian authorities to commute a death sentence on one of his fellow citizens, but wondered how he could make the case for the others. "With over 60 Nigerians on the death row in Indonesia, how will the government be able to make a case for all of them?' he asked.

June 19: In a rare bit of good news on the death penalty front, Vietnam announced it is considering abolishing the ultimate sanction for 12 crimes, including smuggling and "organization of illegal drug use." Vietnam has sentenced dozens of people to death for drug offenses so far this year.

June 23: A Malaysian High Court sentenced a 59-year-old cook to death for trafficking 1.4 kilos of heroin in front of a hotel eight years ago. Tan Kok Tiong will go to the gallows, but his co-defendant got only 18 years. In Malaysia capital crimes include murder, rape, drug crimes, treason and possession of arms. Under the Dangerous Drugs Act 1952, a death sentence is mandatory for distributing drugs.

June 24: The Kuwaiti Supreme Court upheld a death sentence against a member of the royal family for drug trafficking. The royal, identified only as Sheikh Talal, was arrested along with two Lebanese, an Iraqi, a "stateless Arab" (Palestinian), and a Bangladeshi in April 2007 when police found 22 pounds of cocaine and 260 pounds of hashish. Three codefendants got life sentences, while two others got seven years each. Only one other member of the royal family has been sentenced to death -- for murder -- but that sentence was later commuted.

June 25: On the eve of the International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking, courts in three Chinese cities executed three drug dealers and sentenced five more to death in a coordinated move designed to spotlight the country's tough approach to drug abuse. "As the number and scale of drug dealing cases have been increasing in recent years, the court has raised its strength to crack down," Zhang Zhijie, Deputy Chief Judge of the Second Intermediate People's Court of Shanghai Municipality, was quoted as saying by official Xinhua news agency. The Shanghai court handed down sentences in four drug trafficking cases on Monday, giving capital punishment in three of them. Two others were sentenced to death by the Intermediate People's Court at Shenzhen in Guangdong province which pronounced sentences in seven cases, it said.

Free, Private Screening of the Award Winning Film: Take

Prison Fellowship and Sojourners in partnership with Telos Films and Liberation Entertainment cordially invites you to attend a free, private screening of the award winning film TAKE. Q and A with the Director, Charles Oliver to follow the screening. Please RSVP to alex@takethemovie.com or (703)-962-7930. See www.takethemovie.com.
Date: 
Thu, 06/19/2008 - 4:30pm
Location: 
201 F Street NE
Washington, DC 20002
United States

From Draconian Drug Laws to Life Without Parole: Speaking Out Against Harsh Sentencing

With one in 100 American adults behind bars, more and more juries across the country are handing down sentences of life without parole. Now is the time to question what it means for society to turn from state-sanctioned executions to punishments that impose what many prisoners describe as "in-house death sentences." Join the New York chapter of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty and artist, writer, and activist *Anthony Papa in a public meeting to discuss prisons, harsh sentencing and why life without parole is cruel and unusual punishment. * Anthony Papa is communications specialist for the Drug Policy Alliance. He is an artist, writer, noted advocate against the war on drugs and co-founder of the Mothers of the New York Disappeared. Mr. Papa's stinging editorials about the drug war have appeared in news sources across the country. He is a frequent public speaker and college lecturer on his art and criminal justice issues. Mr. Papa is the author of 15 to Life: How I Painted My Way to Freedom (2004), a memoir about his experience of being sentenced to state prison for a first-time, nonviolent drug offense under New York's draconian Rockefeller Drug Laws. For more information, see Campaign to End the Death Penalty at www.nodeathpenalty.org.
Date: 
Mon, 06/16/2008 - 7:00pm
Location: 
126th St. between Broadway & Amsterdam
New York, NY
United States

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