At least 131 people were executed for drug convictions in 2021, according to a new report from Harm Reduction International (HRI). That’s already more than four times as many people as were known to be executed worldwide in 2020—but it’s far from the whole picture. As the report notes, “this number is likely to represent only a fraction of all drug-related executions carried out globally.” We don’t know the true count because most of the countries that inflict these executions keep them highly secret.
“The group of countries actively resorting to capital punishment as a central tool of drug control is shrinking, but is also more and more characterized by opacity and secrecy, if not outright censorship,” the authors wrote. “Transparency and monitoring will thus be key challenges.”
HRI confirmed that both Iran and China carried out executions for drug convictions in 2021, although the true totals are unknown. China may execute thousands of people a year for drugs, according to Amnesty International. Executions for all convictions spiked in Iran—and drug death penalties are quickly becoming one of the leading causes.
HRI suspects that Vietnam and North Korea also carried out drug executions in 2021, but cannot confirm it because of government secrecy. Drug convictions may also be the leading cause of executions in North Korea, with reports indicating that such executions have risen in recent years. These may be carried out immediately, in public, the report says, or at one of 300 or more execution sites around the country.
All we know of Vietnam is that it hands down dozens of drug death sentences each year, and that the country has 11 execution centers in operation.
HRI also highlights how drug death penalties target the most vulnerable members of societies. Globally, one in 10 people sentenced to death for drugs is a foreign national. Such defendants often don’t understand the language of their prosecutors, and may be coerced into signing documents or testifying without interpreters.
Members of ethnic minority groups with drug convictions are also disproportionately sentenced to death, as are women. Iran executed at least five women for drugs in 2021. People with physical or mental disabilities are also subjected to death sentences for drugs, and denied care while incarcerated.
The report classifies “High Application States” as those in which “executions of individuals convicted of drug offenses were carried out, and/or at least 10 drug-related death sentences per year were imposed in the past five years.” Along with China, Iran, Vietnam and North Korea, it places Indonesia, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia and Singapore in this category. In some of these countries, the picture appears to have improved, albeit from a horrifying starting point.
Under orders from Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia did not execute anyone for drugs in 2021, having previously been one of the harshest regimes globally. But the danger here is that the Crown Prince’s stance could be reversed any minute. Indeed, Saudi Arabia continues to sentence people to death for drugs, and has denied those on death row any retrial or commutation. The country still frequently carries out the death sentence for non-drug convictions. Just days ago, on March 12, 81 men were executed by the state—the worst mass execution in the country’s modern history.
Singapore has meanwhile not carried out any drug executions for two years in a row, and Indonesia for five years in a row (Indonesia has conducted no executions at all in that time). But the situation in Singapore is also precarious—at least three people with mental disabilities are on death row for drugs right now.
Other countries have tried to make moves in the opposite direction. The Philippines under President Rodrigo Duterte, who has conducted one of the world’s worst drug wars, is considering reinstating the death penalty for drug convictions. In March 2021, the House of Representatives adopted a bill to do so, but the Senate hasn’t taken it up. It likely won’t be considered until after the country’s presidential elections this May—though leading candidate Ferdinand Marcos Jr. has called for the drug death penalty before.
The small Pacific island nation of Tonga also considered imposing the death penalty for drug convictions last year, but changed course after public backlash.
Worldwide, over 3,000 people are on death row for drugs. The report notes that drug death sentences continue to rise at a faster rate than death sentences in general. In 2021 HRI confirmed at least 237 death sentences for drugs in 16 countries, including Indonesia (the highest number), Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam. That total is an 11 percent increase from 2020.
Once again, that tally doesn’t include many more that are kept secret. In Indonesia and Malaysia, the number of people on death row for drugs increased—accounting for roughly two thirds of the death row population in each country. Thailand’s population on death row for drugs meanwhile declined by 27 percent.
Vietnam issued so many death sentences for drugs in 2021, with 87 confirmed, that its death row cells are overcrowding. A lack of health care or sanitation contributes to the spread of disease inside, and to cases of self-harm or suicide.
The mental health toll for death-row prisoners everywhere is a constant harm. “For many of them, their rights are violated and they await execution, sometimes for years, in a constant state of anguish, uncertainty and physical and psychological suffering,” HRI’s Giada Girelli wrote for Filter back in 2018. “UN bodies recognize such conditions as a form of inhumane treatment, if not torture.”
Top image is a detail taken from the Harm Reduction International report, The Death Penalty for Drug Offences: Global Overview 2021