Drug offences: states must acknowledge the flawed logic at the heart of the regime itself

As the world turns its back on the death penalty for drug offences, the US looks to the extreme fringe.

Gen Sander
15 March 2018

Prabagan Srivijayan on the We Believe in Second Chances Facebook pageIn the summer of 2012, Singapore handed 29-year-old Malaysian Prabagan Srivijayan a mandatory death sentence for drug trafficking after 22.24g of heroin was found in the armrest of a car he had borrowed.

Serious concerns about the fairness of Prabagan’s trial included the authorities’ failure to follow up leads that could have proven his innocence, and to call on key witnesses who could confirm his version of events. His fingerprints were never found on the drugs. Eventually, his legal team turned to the Malaysian courts to appeal on the basis that his trial had been unfair. But his execution went ahead without waiting for the outcome of the proceedings. Prabagan maintained his innocence until the day he was executed. He was hanged almost exactly 5 years from the date of his conviction, on 14 July 2017.

Singapore has shocked the world with two more executions for drug offences in the past seven days. On Friday 9 March 2018, 39 year-old Ghanian Billy Agbozo was executed for drug trafficking, following the failure of his final plea for clemency. This morning, Singapore executed Hishamrudin Bin Mohd, a 59 year-old Singaporean man found guilty of possessing 34.94 grams of diamorphine for the purpose of trafficking. According to Amnesty International, Hishamrudin Bin Mohd maintained his innocence throughout his arrest and trial and claims that proceedings against him were unfair. His final appeal was rejected by the Supreme Court yesterday.

Singapore is one of just five countries known to have recently executed people for drug-related offences. This small number of States – which also includes China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Indonesia – represents what Harm Reduction International has called the “extreme fringe” of the international community. There is absolutely no evidence to suggest that the death penalty reduces drug use or trafficking, making all the more alarming US President Donald Trump’s recent praise for Singapore’s mandatory death penalty for drug offences and stated interest in pursuing a similar approach to stop the opioid epidemic domestically.

The use of the death penalty for drug offences is reviewed in Harm Reduction International’s new Global Overview on the Death Penalty for Drug Offences. The report reveals that between January 2015 and December 2017, at least 1,320 people like Prabagan, Billy and Hishamrudin are known to have been executed for non-violent drug offences, with Iran responsible for 90% of these deaths.

The actual number of total executions is likely to be far higher if accurate figures, particularly for China, were available. While researching for the report, it was a shock to discover that many of those killed were subjected to unfair trials, torture and/or forced confessions. Most were also poor, often coerced into the drug trade to meet their families’ basic needs and generally unable to afford skilled and effective lawyers.   

Glimmers of hope and dark shadows

Today, 33 countries currently have the death penalty for drug offences in their domestic law, and of these at least nine have it as a mandatory sentence, meaning that courts have no discretion to take into account the distinct facts, context or characteristics of each case. Many countries however, do not execute in practice.

As highlighted by the report, recent positive developments provide a glimmer of hope that the tide could finally be shifting. At the national level, important legal and policy changes have taken place in several countries. In Iran, for example, a recent change in the law raised the minimum quantity of drug possession required to incur the death penalty, which could help commute the sentences of the estimated 4,000 people on death row for petty drug-related offences. Already, the number of known executions has been declining since 2015, when a record 638 people were executed for drug offences.

At the international level, more and more States are calling for the abolition of the death penalty for drug offences and lending their support to the cause.

Unfortunately, the extrajudicial execution of over 12,000 people accused of using or selling drugs in the Philippines casts a dark shadow over these recent signs of progress. Although both are strictly prohibited under international law, the death penalty – or judicial executions – for drug offences theoretically requires legal checks and balances, while extrajudicial executions occur outside of any legal process.

And while the Philippines formally abolished the death penalty in 2006, the State-sanctioned street killings occurring under the auspices of the ‘war on drugs’ are creating an environment of impunity, emboldening other States to adopt similar, or at least more hard-line, approaches to drugs.

Take neighbouring Indonesia, for example, where President Joko Widodo’s support for Duterte’s ‘war on drugs’ and “shoot-on-sight” policy for drug suspects has coincided with an escalation of extrajudicial killings in the country. Between January and December 2017, 80 people suspected of selling drugs have been killed by police in Indonesia, a sharp increase from the 18 killings in 2016, and more than a third occurred after the suspects had surrendered to police.

At the heart of the regime

Harm Reduction International is calling on all States to immediately halt judicial and extrajudicial executions for drugs, commute death sentences, and abolish the death penalty for drug-related offences as a first step towards full abolition.

Of course, judicial and extrajudicial executions remain just two of the many human rights violations occurring as a result of the international system for drug control. Punitive and prohibitionist approaches to drugs continue to be the dominant response in many places, despite the fact that these do not work to curb drug use and trafficking.

The message underlying these approaches, that drugs are inherently bad and dangerous, enables mass incarceration, warrantless stop and search and the closure of harm reduction services as much as they support the hangings, beheadings and roadside shootings that have come to characterise the extreme end of the war on drugs.

While support for the abolition of the death penalty for drug offences may be gathering momentum, this crucial work must go hand in hand with broader efforts in all countries to end the use of criminal law and harsh penalties as the policy norm in drug control. States must acknowledge the flawed logic at the heart of the regime itself. Only by doing this can the corrosive effects of drug laws and policies everywhere begin to be undone, and these most extreme practices finally be brought to an end.

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