Death Penalty

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Death Penalty: More Executions in Iran and Saudi Arabia, Syrian Activists Criticize Saudis

The resort to the death penalty for drug offenses continued apace in recent days. According to reports compiled by the anti-death penalty organization Hands Off Cain, both Iran and Saudi Arabia were hard at it again. Meanwhile, the Saudis have come under fire from Syrian activists complaining that large numbers of their countrymen have fallen under the executioner's sword in Saudi Arabia.

According to recent reports, Saudi citizen Abdullah al-Qahtani was executed for trafficking in tranquilizers in Riyadh on April 11; two Nigerians caught smuggling cocaine into the kingdom inside their bodies, Mohammed Qaddus Suleyman and Idris Abdel Ghani Mohammed, were beheaded in the western Mecca region on April 13; a Saudi man, Ayyed al-Dousary, was executed for selling drugs in the southwestern city of Abha on April 15; and a Jordanian, Mohammed bin Awadh al-Khalidi, was executed for trafficking in tranquilizers in Al Qarah on April 17. Four days later, Iran got back into the game by hanging four people convicted of drug trafficking in the country's southeast.

Meanwhile Syrian human rights activists said that Saudi Arabia has sentenced at least 30 of their compatriots to death on drug charges and jailed hundreds more. "This arbitrary punishment is based on wild interpretations of the Koran. Trials lacked any modicum of justice," lawyer Mohannad al-Hassani said after meeting Syrian officials to raise the plight of the inmates. The activists expressed concern that the Syrian citizens could be suffering from the political tensions between Syria and Saudi Arabia. "I hope regular citizens do not end up paying the price for bad relations between two Arab countries," Hassani said.

Hundreds of Syrians were in Saudi jails for drug offenses, he said, many of whom had spent years awaiting trial. They are mostly young truck drivers and unskilled workers, he said.

Death Penalty: More Death Sentences in Algeria, Syria, Pakistan, a Reprieve in Vietnam

The resort to the ultimate sanction against drug offenders continues this month, with courts in Algeria, Syria and Pakistan handing down death sentences. But yielding to pressure from the West, the Vietnamese government commuted the death sentence of a British citizen.

In Syria, the anti-death penalty watchdog Hands Off Cain reported, a court sentenced four Syrian nationals, two Turks, and one Lebanese to death April 1 for drug trafficking. Two of the Syrians were arrested in Homs with five kilos of heroin and one of cocaine. The two Turks were convicted of selling prescription pain relievers to the two other Syrians, who in turn were to sell them to the Lebanese man.

Also according to Hands Off Cain, the Criminal Court in Algeria's southern Ghardaia province Tuesday sentenced three men to death for trafficking about 1,300 pounds of marijuana. While the three said they were only couriers who had been hired by another person, the judge said he did not believe them.

Meanwhile, the Pakistan Daily Times reported District and Sessions Judge Iqbal Malik sentenced Awal Khan to death for possessing about 90 pounds of marijuana. To add insult to injury, the judge also sentenced him to pay a 5 million rupee fine. If he fails to pay the fine, he will have to do six months in jail (presumably before he is executed).

There is one bit of good news on the death penalty front this week. Again according to Hands Off Cain, Vietnamese President Nguyen Minh Triet commuted the death sentence of Vietnamese-born British citizen Le Manh Luoung for heroin trafficking to life imprisonment. That announcement came from the British Embassy on April 4. Luong and three other Vietnamese defendants were sentenced to death in 2006 for trafficking 750 pounds of heroin. Lacking powerful Western governments to argue on their behalf, Luoung's accomplices have not been so fortunate. Their death sentences remain pending.

Death Penalty: Hash-Selling, Drunkenness Earn Ultimate Sanction, Two More Beheaded in Saudi Arabia

The resort to the death penalty for drug offenses continued unabated this week and arguably scaled new heights as an Indian court sentenced a man to death for selling hash and an Iranian court handed out the same sentence to a chronic drunk. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia lopped the heads off another pair of drug traffickers.

As reported by the death penalty abolitionist group Hands Off Cain, an Iranian court sentenced a 22-year-old man to death for repeatedly violating the Islamic Republic's ban on drinking alcohol. The man, identified only by his first name, Mohsen, has confessed and expressed remorse, his lawyer told the Iranian state news agency. Under Iran's Sharia law, a person caught drinking four times can face capital punishment, but the resort to the ultimate sanction for drinking is reportedly rare.

Meanwhile, India made a rare appearance among the ranks of the death-dealing countries this week when a Mumbai court meted out a death sentence for selling 20 kilos of hashish. Under Indian law, a second drug trafficking offense can merit the death penalty, but the sentence handed down to Gulam Malik was the first one in the city of Mumbai.

And Saudi Arabia kept up on its bid to be a world leader in drug executions, with the executions in Mecca last week of two people for drug trafficking. Pakistani citizen Ghulam Nawaz was beheaded after being found guilty of trafficking, as was Nigerian woman Tawa Ibrahim. Saudi Arabia follows a strict interpretation of Islamic law that prescribes the death sentence for murder, apostasy, rape, drug trafficking, highway robbery, sabotage and armed robbery.

The resort to the death penalty appears to be a violation of international law. An international campaign to end the practice is getting underway. Read about it here.

Death Penalty: More Drug Executions in Saudi Arabia, More Death Sentences in Vietnam, But a Rare Sign of Leniency in China

In a series of notices published this week, the death penalty abolitionist group Hands Off Cain reported on both bad news and good when it comes to drugs and the death penalty. In two countries that frequently execute drug offenders, there was more of the same, but in another, there was a rare show of leniency.

In the Middle East, Saudi Arabia reported executing two men for "trafficking large amounts of drugs" on January 20. The two, Abdul Rahman Rashid and Qashaan al-Sabiee, were beheaded by swordsmen in the kingdom's Eastern Province. A third man, Mansur Jrad, a Yemeni citizen, was executed two days later in southern Jizan Province for smuggling an unspecified amount of hashish. Saudi Arabia follows a strict interpretation of Islamic sharia law, which provides for the death penalty for murder, apostasy, rape, highway robbery, sabotage and armed robbery, as well as drug trafficking.

In Southeast Asia, Vietnam sentenced three people to death for heroin trafficking on January 25. The Ho Chi Minh City Court imposed the death sentences on Van Toan, 35; Nguyen Thanh Mai, 40; and Nguyen Thuy Ngoc Bang, 25, for their role in a ring that trafficked five kilograms of heroin. Two others were given life sentences, while six remaining ring members got sentences of between 13 and 20 years. This brings to around 50 the number of death sentences announced for drug traffickers in Vietnam since the end of November.

If it was business as usual in Saudi Arabia and Vietnam, China departed from its normal practice on January 22 to pardon two Ugandan women sentenced to death for drug trafficking. The pair, Sarah Basiima and Bonita Nagai, were among 15 Ugandans awaiting execution in China for drug trafficking offenses, but were reportedly spared because of poor health and because one is pregnant and the other is the mother of an infant child. They will be deported, according to reports cited by Hands Off Cain.

The continuing executions of drug offenders by countries around the world has led to the emergence of an international campaign to end the practice. Read more about it here.

Feature: International Campaign to Stop Drug Executions Gearing Up

The notices generally appear as brief blips on the news wires, or perhaps as one-paragraph summaries in the international sections of newspapers: "Iran Hangs Three for Heroin Smuggling," "Vietnam Sentences 12 to Death for Drugs," "Malaysia to Execute Man For Five Pounds of Cannabis." The notices may be brief, but there is a steady drumbeat of them. In just the past week came news that Iran had handed over the body of a Pakistani man executed for drug trafficking and that Malaysia had sentenced a bill collector to death for drug trafficking.

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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)
Despite the steadily rising toll, the use of the death penalty as a tool in the war on drugs rarely receives much attention, let alone sustained analysis. But that could be beginning to change as harm reduction and human rights organizations gear up to put the state-sanctioned killing of drug offenders in the international spotlight. The opening volley in that effort took place last month, when the International Harm Reduction Association released a report on the use of the death penalty for drug offenses that both details the extent of the problem and qualifies it as a violation of international human rights law.

The report, The Death Penalty for Drug Offences: A Violation of International Human Rights Law, authored by IHRA analyst Rick Lines, finds that some 32 countries have drug offense death penalty provisions on their books, mostly in North Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. While the death penalty is typically reserved for drug sales, trafficking, or manufacture, that is not always the case, and in some countries, mere possession can warrant a death sentence.

The number of people executed for drug offenses easily runs into the hundreds, perhaps even more, each year. In the last month, Vietnam alone has sentenced more than 40 people to death for drug offenses, while from Iran comes a steady drumbeat of notices from the state news agency that another trafficker or two or three has been hanged. China has been known to hold mass public executions of drug offenders, while in Singapore, dozens of drug offenders face the executioner each year.

Still, the exact number of executions is unknowable. That's because countries either do not provide details on the number of executions or do not provide breakdowns of why people were executed.

"Because some countries -- China, for instance -- do not release details of the number of executions they carry out each year, it is impossible to arrive at an accurate yearly total of drug war executions," said Lines. "While we can't arrive at an accurate number, suffice it to say that in some countries, as detailed in the report, drug offenders constitute a significant percentage of all executions each year, so this is a major issue in some countries."

Those killings violate international human rights law, the report argues. While international law does not ban capital punishment, it does limit it in significant ways. The report notes that the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights says the death penalty may be applied only for the "most serious crimes." Both the UN Human Rights Committee and the UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions have found that drug offenses do not constitute "most serious crimes," which makes executing drug offenders a violation of international law.

"Capital punishment for drug offences is but one illustration of how human rights have been sacrificed in the name of the 'war on drugs,'" said Professor Gerry Stimson, the IHRA's executive director. "Unfortunately, the death penalty is not the only example of such abuses worldwide. Repressive law enforcement practices, the denial of health services to drug users and the spread of HIV infection among people who inject drugs, due to lack of access to harm reduction programs, are far too common in many countries across the globe."

While the IHRA is working all these issues, it is now preparing to bring the death penalty issue to the forefront as part of a broader campaign to tie harm reduction and human rights together. "This report is the first research report from our new HR2 -- harm reduction and human rights -- program, and one of our main emphases in this new program is research and advocacy on human rights issues related to drug policy and human rights abuses against people who use drugs," said Lines. "The death penalty is an obvious issue in that regard, and an important one to highlight with our first publication. This is part of a broader campaign, and we will be using the research in various ways to highlight the issue at the international level in 2008."

The emerging campaign against the death penalty for drug offenders is part of a broader effort to bring more attention to human rights abuses against people involved with drugs, said Lines. "Both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have been very supportive of our work on this issue and have provided important advice and information along the way," he said. "This is an important link for us. We hope the issue of the death penalty for drugs is one that might be used to raise the issue of human rights abuses and drug policy more generally within the mainstream human rights movement."

IHRA will be working with human rights groups as well as its international network of regional harm reduction groups to put the issue in the spotlight this year. In the US, that means groups like the Harm Reduction Coalition will be joining the fight.

"Our general feeling is that the more repressive the legal environment, the less room for implementing harm reduction measures around HIV prevention, overdose prevention, and related issues," said Daniel Raymond, the coalition's policy director, "We see a direct correlation in places like Thailand," he said.

The Harm Reduction Coalition has already been working the issue to a limited degree and plans to do more, Raymond said. "We've done a little work around China and its tendency to celebrate the international day against drugs by executing people, and we've been involved in the discussions between the IHRA and the regional harm reduction networks on this," he said. "We will be involved again as this campaign begins to gear up. We're very interested in pressure to bear and in bringing the harm reduction community in the US into this issue."

Lines said it is time to act. "As I did the research for this report, I was surprised how little attention this issue has received, despite the fact that executions for drug offenses clearly violate international law. There was much less literature on the topic than I assumed there would be when I started," he noted. "I was also surprised to see that while the worldwide trend is clearly toward the abolition of the capital punishment -- the number of countries with the death penalty has steadily decreased over the past 20 years -- at the same time, the number of countries with laws allowing the death penalty for drugs has increased," Lines continued. "That's completely opposite to the general trend away from capital punishment. I think this is an issue where we can almost empirically measure the negative effects of the war on drugs on human rights."

The campaign against the death penalty for drug offenses got a boost last month when the UN General Assembly called for a moratorium on the death penalty for all offenses. Now, the IHRA, its regional network, and mainstream human rights organizations are ready to bring on the pressure.

"We will begin to initiate more direct lobbying and campaigning this year," Lines promised. "I can't go into any more detail at the moment, but you have not heard the last from us on this issue."

Death Penalty: Iran, Vietnam Ring In New Year With More Executions, Death Sentences

Both Iran and Vietnam greeted the new year by resorting -- yet again -- to the ultimate sanction for drug trafficking offenders. In Vietnam, eight convicted heroin traffickers were sentenced to death this week, while in Iran, five drug traffickers were among 13 people executed Wednesday.

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International Anti-Drugs Day drug burn, Tehran
The Vietnam death sentences bring to at least 43 the number handed down for drug trafficking since the end of November. In the latest verdict, eight members of a gang that trafficked heroin from northwestern Son La province near the Laotian border to Hanoi, Haiphong, and Ho Chi Minh City got the death sentence. The court sentenced 29 others to lengthy jail terms, including 18 sentenced to life in prison.

While opium use has a centuries-old tradition in Vietnam, the Communist government has wiped out most large-scale poppy production. But trafficking from other Southeast Asian nations has been on the rise, drug use has increased sharply since the 1990s, and "heroin continues to be the preferred drug among younger drug abusers," according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime.

Iran, facing a flood of Afghan opium and heroin, has embraced a similarly final response. The three drug traffickers hanged Wednesday in Qom and the two hanged the same day in Zahedan were only the latest in the Islamic Republic's ongoing battle against trafficking. Last year, Iran carried out 297 executions, with an unknown but sizeable number of them for drug trafficking.

Under Iranian law, anyone found trafficking more than 30 grams (slightly more than an ounce) of heroin or five kilograms of opium is eligible for the death penalty.

That's the way it should be, said a judicial official in Qom. "By implementing God's law, we are increasing security in society and we are sending a message that Qom is not a safe haven for those who break the law," said local judiciary official Hoda Torshizi. But the drugs continue to flow unabated, proving that even state killings en masse can't compete with supply and demand.

Death Penalty: Malaysia to Execute Man for Marijuana, China to Execute Man for Meth

Even as the UN General Assembly voted this week for a death penalty moratorium, two Asian nations were once again exercising the ultimate sanction against drug offenders. In Malaysia, a man faces death for less than two pounds of marijuana, while in China, a man has been sentenced to death for trafficking in methamphetamine.

In Malaysia, Razali Ahmad, 33, was found guilty of trafficking marijuana Tuesday after police searched his house and found 858 grams. In Malaysia, the charge of trafficking carries an automatic death sentence.

Meanwhile, a Chinese court Monday sentenced Hao Chen to death for being a ringleader in a meth trafficking organization in southern Guandong Province. Five other ring members were sentenced to terms ranging from 15 years to life. The sentences were for trafficking about three pounds of meth.

In addition to the UN General Assembly's condemnation of the death penalty in general, the use of the death penalty against drug offenders has generated a campaign by harm reductionists to end such practices. Look for an in-depth report on all of this in the coming weeks.

Death Penalty: Vietnam In Death Sentence Frenzy, 35 Condemned for Drugs in Past Two Weeks

A Vietnamese court sentenced eight people to death for smuggling heroin Wednesday, bringing to 35 the number of people sent to death row for drug trafficking offenses in the past two weeks. This week's death sentences came only days after 11 people were sentenced to death November 29 and four more sentenced to death November 30.

In the most recent case, 26 people were convicted of trafficking 50 kilograms of heroin over an eight-year period, and eight, including the ringleader, a 35-year-old woman, were given the ultimate sanction. Eight others received life sentences, and the rest were jailed for between 15 and 20 years.

In the November 29 case, the Hanoi People's Court sentenced 11 people to death for trafficking 440 kilos of heroin in Vietnam and China, while seven more got life in prison. Others got 20-year sentences. In the November 30 case, a court in the central province of Nghe An sentenced four more people to death and three others to life for trafficking an unspecified amount of heroin.

Southeast Asia and the Middle East are the regions where the death penalty is most frequently inflicted for drug trafficking offenses. Now, Vietnam appears to be making a bid to be the undisputed champion in killing drug offenders. (That, however, didn't stop Iran from hanging four this week too.)

Death Penalty: More Executions in Iran, More Death Sentences in Vietnam

The use of the death penalty against drug offenders continues at a brisk pace in the Middle East and Southeast Asia. In the past week, Iran executed five more drug offenders, while in Vietnam, prosecutors demanded 11 death sentences for traffickers and the courts upheld one more.

According to the international anti-death penalty group Hands Off Cain, Iranian authorities executed five men November 20 in the eastern city of Birjand for distributing 146 kilos of narcotics. The men were not named. The following day, a man identified only by his first name, Gholam Reza, was hanged in Qom for trafficking in 90 kilos of narcotics.

The same day Iran executed the five men in Birjand, a United Nations General Assembly committee passed a non-binding resolution urging Iran to "abolish, in law and in practice, public executions and other executions carried out in the absence of respect for internationally recognized standards."

Meanwhile, the Vietnamese justice system has been busily calling for and upholding drug trafficking death sentences, too. On November 21, a court in Ho Chi Minh City threw out the appeal of Australian-born Tony Manh, 40, and upheld his death sentence for trafficking two pounds of heroin. He had been arrested at Tan Son Nhat airport after security officers found the heroin hidden on his body as he prepared to board a plane for Sydney.

And Wednesday, prosecutors in Hanoi called for the death penalty to be imposed on 11 people involved in an organization that smuggled 416 kilos of heroin. Death sentences were demanded for ringleader Luong Ngoc Lap and 10 of his lieutenants, while prosecutors demanded life sentences for seven others and 18-to-20 years in prison for three more. The call for the death penalty and other sentences came at the end of a four-day trial in what is northern Vietnam's largest drug case ever.

Death Penalty: Two More Executed for Drug Trafficking in Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia continued its bid to remain in the top ranks among countries who execute people for drug offenses, beheading two Pakistanis in different parts of the country last week. Along with Iran, Indonesia, and Malaysia, Saudi Arabia is among the most prolific killers of drug law violators.

According to the anti-death penalty group Hands Off Cain, citing Saudi state media sources, Pakistani citizen Bhrour Sadbar Khan was executed November 8 in Riyadh for smuggling heroin into the kingdom. Pakistani citizen Qismata Qul Rasul Khan was executed November 10 in the eastern city of Damman after being convicted of smuggling heroin and hashish into the kingdom.

According to the anti-death penalty group, Saudi Arabia has executed dozens of people each year this decade, with yearly figures ranging from a low of 38 in 2004 and a high of 90 in 2005. So far, 49 people have been executed this year. It is unclear how many were drug offenders.

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