David Borden, Executive Director, [email protected], 6/29/01
Drugs and the death penalty have been a recurring topic lately: A week and a half ago, Juan Raul Garza was executed for murders committed in the course of running a marijuana trafficking enterprise; it was the second federal execution since the early 1960s and the first related to drug enforcement ever. Wasting no time, federal prosecutors quickly announced their intention to seek the death penalty against seven other Texan drug defendants.
Across the world, the government of the largest nation on Earth has even less patience. Three days ago, marking the United Nation's International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Drug Trafficking, the Chinese government executed 59 drug traffickers in a ritual played out year after year with clock-like predictability.
At least they say they were drug traffickers. But even here in the US, with a death penalty appeals process that can stretch over decades, we've found time after time that innocent death row inmates will reach the brink of execution before their innocence is demonstrated. The logical conclusion is that it is overwhelmingly likely that innocents have been put to death.
How much more is this the case in China, where conviction and execution can be a summary affair subject to a totalitarian bureaucrat's need to fill a quota? And of the "guilty," many, according to a report by Amnesty International, are mere possessors or low-level operators, not the major traffickers the government makes them out to be.
Amnesty brought out a particularly tragic case in this report, issued four years ago: A young woman, returning to Guangzhou province from her honeymoon in Kunming in January 1996, agreed to take a package for an acquaintance in return for some money, a common practice in China. During the train ride, she became suspicious about the contents, tried to open it, couldn't, and began to realize the package contained drugs. Seeing her agitation, a ticket checker on the train discovered the package and turned her in. On June 26, 1996, the UN's Anti-Drug Day, she was sentenced to death by the Guangxi High People's Court.
UN officials have at least had the decency to distance themselves from China's mass executions; their once-a-year fete is supposed to about sending educational messages about drug abuse and prevention. Doubtless in most countries that is what happens.
But that is cold comfort to the 56 executed and their families and friends. The UN knows, after all these years, that simply by holding the Anti-Drug Day, they are in effect inciting the government of China to commit mass murder. No number of conferences or festivals is worth such a cost, and such events are tinged by the blood of the executed, no matter how positive the intentions of their participants.
Substance abuse is a serious problem, and education and programs to address it are very worthwhile. But this is clearly not the way to go about it, and the fact that this sordid, violent chapter continues to play itself out year after year with such predictability, is a scandal that shames our international institutions and the nations that support them.
That is why the UN's Anti-Drug Day must stop.