Worldwide, Executions for Drug-Law Violations Are Increasing Again

    Ali Reza Madadpur was waiting outside a house in Iran in November 2011. He had come for his first day of a cleaning job, thankful for any work after dropping out of university and struggling to make a living. Before he began, police raided the house and found close to a kilogram of methamphetamine. Though he had nothing to do with the trafficking activity, Madadpur was implicated with two other men and arrested.

    He was held for weeks in incommunicado detention, where no one could see or hear from him, not even a lawyer. Eyewitnesses said he lost so much weight after his interrogations that he looked like “a skeleton.” Only two weeks before his trial was he assigned a lawyer, who at trial was only allowed to read a prepared statement. The trial itself lasted 20 minutes, after which Madadpur was sentenced to death by hanging. He was executed in August 2016.

    Executions for drug-law violations are increasing globally, says a new report from Harm Reduction International (HRI). Since 2007, the organization has tracked worldwide drug-related executions, which peaked at 755 in 2015. Though executions declined to a record-low 93 in 2018, last year they increased about 31 percent, to 122. At least 3,000 people sentenced to death for drug offenses remain on death row, many of whom have been there for more than 10 years.

    “When we began looking at the death penalty for drug offences in the late 2000s, there was seldom any analysis of drug control from a human rights perspective,” HRI Analyst Gen Sander told Filter. We noticed that drug offenses made up a significant amount of executions carried out globally, and that countries were introducing the death penalty for drugs precisely while others were moving forward with abolition.”

    “There were so many human rights concerns, but very little public outcry and zero international attention paid to them,” she continued. “So we set out to mainstream the issue within human rights and drug policy reform sectors, and make it a serious wedge issue within the UN drug control regime.” Sander’s organization is formally releasing its report at a UN drug control summit in Vienna this week.

    Overall, 35 countries worldwide, including the US, legally allow the death penalty for drug offenses. HRI was only able to confirm that four countries—China, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Singapore—carried out executions last year. Data are not available for all countries; some, like Vietnam, maintain strict secrecy.

    The executions are often carried out in circumstances where defendants’ legal and human rights were previously violated.

    “Indeed, violations of the right to a fair trial occur, often on a systemic level, in states that hand down sentences for drug offences,” the report states. “With death sentences for drug offenses continuing to be meted out and hundreds of people awaiting execution following unfair judicial procedures, there is an urgent need to draw more attention to this issue, and to work with retentionist states to reform their criminal justice systems, all while taking steps to ultimately abolish the death penalty altogether.”

    In Malaysia, for example, Amnesty International found that defendants who do not speak or read Malay are pressured by police to sign documents in that language, which are then used against them in court. Iran Human Rights found that Iranian citizens in Malaysia sentenced to death for drugs were not provided a translator during their investigations.

    In Indonesia, people arrested for drugs are typically denied access to lawyers for weeks or months afterwards. Research revealed that nearly nine in 10 people who were sentenced to death for drug-law violations in that country between 2017-2019 did not receive legal counsel during the investigation phase. Even when defendants do see a lawyer, the lawyers are often unhelpful or even opposed to protecting defendants’ rights. Many people facing serious drug charges can’t afford lawyers and have to use state-appointed attorneys.


    Torture and Other Human Rights Violations

    “Despite clear international law as well as state laws prohibiting it, instances continue to emerge of torture and other ill-treatment on the part of police and state officials as a means of gathering information and evidence against suspects arrested on drug charges,” HRI states.

    UN officials found thattorture and ill-treatment is so widespread at police stations in Malaysia that nearly all of the detainees interviewed said they had been victimized. Evidence gained through torture is admissible in some drug cases. Drug offense suspects are often convicted based on such “evidence”  in Indonesia, China, Saudi Arabia and Iran.

    In Indonesia, one Pakistani man was arrested for drug charges in 2004 and tortured so severely that he needed stomach and kidney surgeries. “Police kept him detained in a house for three days and punched, kicked and threatened him with death unless he signed a ‘confession’, which he later did,” HRI states. “During his trial, he described the torture to which he had been subjected, but the judges still allowed the ‘confession’ to be admitted as evidence. He was eventually sentenced to death, and died of cancer on death row in May 2018.”

    These cases are just the tip of the iceberg. HRI also documents widespread abuses of the right to legal counsel, the right to presumption of innocence, and the rights to seek appeal, pardon or commutation. “The violations described are not isolated incidents or exceptional cases, but rather a manifestation of systemic issues,” HRI states.

    While the US and 16 other nations have “symbolic” laws that punish some drug-law violations with the death penalty, nearly all of these countries have not actually executed anyone for a drug crime, nor do they have anyone on death row for drugs. But HRI notes that President Donald Trump has continued calling for the death penalty for drug offenders, and that his political pressure on China resulted in them executing the first person for fentanyl trafficking in November 2019.

    US federal law authorizes the death penalty for defendants who direct a continuing criminal enterprise involving either large quantities of drugs or a $20 million annual income. Trafficking large quantities of narcotics can carry the death penalty even if no one died as a result.

    HRI is calling for the total abolition of the death penalty worldwide, but recognizes that this is currently unlikely. At the very least, the organization urges, countries should strengthen legal aid to defendants and respect their legal and human rights.

    “Hardline political agendas to combat drugs are in conflict with fundamental rights, and are not effective in stopping drug trafficking, nor in addressing drug use,” HRI states. “Robust adherence to the rule of law, respect for international fair trial standards and the implementation of safeguards will be important for meaningful change.”

    Photo by Hédi Benyounes on Unsplash.

    • Alexander is Filter’s staff writer. He writes about the movement to end the War on Drugs. He grew up in New Jersey and swears it’s actually alright. He’s also a musician hoping to change the world through the power of ledger lines and legislation. Alexander was previously Filter‘s editorial fellow.

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