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The Death Penalty for Drugs – ‘Shared Responsibility and Shared Consequences’

For those governments that think the death penalty for drugs is none of their business - think again. Even though the majority of the world’s states have abolished capital punishment for all crimes, and only a tiny minority carry out the death penalty for drugs, it is often foreigners from non-death penalty countries that suffer the ‘ultimate sanction.’
Patrick Gallahue
19 September 2011

For those governments that think the death penalty for drugs is none of their business - think again.

Even though the majority of the world’s states have abolished capital punishment for all crimes, and only a tiny minority carry out the death penalty for drugs, it is often foreigners from non-death penalty countries that suffer the ‘ultimate sanction.’ 

Consider that the Philippines abolished the death penalty in 2006, yet in February there were 78 Filipinos on death row in China, most for drugs. Three were executed earlier this year. 

Mexico doesn’t have capital punishment but three of its citizens face the death penalty for drugs in Malaysia.  

The UK should remember Akmal Shaikh and Samantha Orobator all too clearly. And the Bali Nine is an ongoing saga for Australia.   

There are hundreds, if not thousands, of non-nationals who are facing or have faced the death penalty for drugs in recent years, including citizens of Australia, France, Israel, Liberia, Mexico, Mongolia, The Netherlands, Nepal, Nigeria, Peru, The Philippines, Sweden, Turkey, United Kingdom, United States, Zambia and many more.

And citizens of a handful of countries appear to suffer disproportionate consequences.  

At least two Indians have been executed for drugs in Saudi Arabia in the last four years. Several others have been sentenced to death in Malaysia. Yet, despite having the death penalty for drugs on the books, India is not believed to have ever executed a drug offender.

This is nearly identical to a situation for the United States. The US does have some very restrictive capital drug laws in effect but it has not sentenced anyone to death for a drug offence much less carried out an execution for it. However, one of its citizens currently resides on death row in Indonesia – where roughly 80 percent of the drug offenders sentenced to hang is foreign nationals.

This has not stopped the US from providing loads of material resources and technical assistance to Indonesia for counter-narcotics. In 2008, two Nigerians, held for drug offences in a US funded Indonesian prison were driven on twenty-four hours’ notice to an isolated field and shot.

Or consider Pakistan – one of the most glaring examples of a country suffering disproportionate consequences.

That country does in fact execute drug offenders, most recently in 2007. But the government of Pakistan does not kill drug offenders at anywhere near the rate that its citizens are executed by foreign powers.

Pakistani nationals have been put to death in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Iran. Many other Pakistanis are awaiting executions on death rows in Yemen, the United Arab Emirates and elsewhere.

In some respects it makes sense that foreign nationals would make up a large number of those caught. After all, drug trafficking is a transnational crime. Yet it is not uncommon for newspapers to report that defendants who are citizens of the prosecuting state get acquitted or receive lesser punishments, while a non-national in the same case gets hammered with the ‘ultimate sanction.’

One could also say that all countries should be equally tough on drugs and therefore it is the sending country that is partially responsible for having more lenient drug laws.

But this ignores the fact that many of those arrested and subjected to the most stringent penalties are little more than ‘small fish’

This will inevitably and justifiably not sit well with the convicted person’s compatriots back home.

Consider the case of Yong Vui Kong, a young man sentenced to death in Singapore for a drug crime he committed at just 19-years-old. It is patently absurd to consider that this boy is anything but a lowly drug mule at worst – but also quite possibly a victim of exploitation.

Many Malaysians are horrified that this offender – who just a short time earlier would have been a juvenile offender – is about to be executed. The Malaysian government has pleaded for clemency on his behalf. But it is difficult to understand the terms of Malaysia’s appeal when it too has mandatory capital drug laws.

Harm Reduction International recently published a report titled, ‘The Death Penalty for Drug Offences: Global Overview 2011 – Shared Responsibility and Shared Consequences’.  It highlights the fact that in many countries the majority or even the entirety of those sentenced to death for drugs and/or executed are foreign nationals. This raises immense concerns about discriminatory law enforcement and sentencing.

Moreover, it flags an issue of considerable concern for stakeholders in the international war on drugs – who are supposed to work together.  

Unless international standards are accepted, a state simply cannot work with governments that prescribe the death penalty for drugs and be assured that such cooperation won’t kill one of its own citizens. 

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