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69 years later, we’re still arguing for the right to life

Date: 17 December 2017

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This article was originally published on Medium. The original can be found here.

Gen Sander, Human Rights Analyst, Harm Reduction International

Alireza Madadpur, a young man with no criminal record from a poor family, was executed for drug offences in Iran last summer. Scraping to make ends meet, Alireza agreed to a cleaning job offered by an acquaintance. As he waited outside on his first day, police raided the house and found 990 grams of crystal meth. Although only guilty of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, Alireza was arrested.

Alireza was interrogated for weeks then assigned a state lawyer who never took the time to meet him. During Alireza’s trial, the judge sentenced him to be lashed and hanged after just 20 minutes. Alireza’s petitions for a retrial and pardon were rejected.

This horrific story is the violent front line of the so-called ‘war on drugs.’ Most shocking is the fact that stories like these are not isolated – thirty-three countries still have laws enabling them to prescribe the death penalty for drug offences. While often justified as being a necessary deterrent, the death penalty does not reduce drug use or trafficking.

This week, sixty-nine years ago, the international community adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, marking an optimistic new era in which the dignity, rights and equality of every individual would be observed. The fact that the so-called ‘war on drugs’ continues to ignore human rights law and destroy the lives of ordinary people and their families is simply unacceptable.

At Harm Reduction International, we have researched, studied and advocated against the death penalty for drug offences since 2007. We have monitored state practice and demonstrated that the use of the death penalty for drug offences is a violation of international human rights law. Yet our findings show that, in the name of drug control, countries continue to execute hundreds of people for non-violent drug offences every year, while many hundreds more remain on death row. Most of these men and women are poor, vulnerable and marginalised low level couriers who are often subjected to forced confessions and unfair trials.

Our latest research, which will be published in early 2018, indicates that between January 2015 and November 2017, more than 1,300 people were executed for drug-related offences. An extreme fringe of the international community – Iran, Saudi Arabia, Singapore and Indonesia – are responsible for these deaths. While this estimate does not include China as data on the use of the death penalty remains a ‘state secrete’ and figures are too unreliable, Amnesty International maintains the country continues to execute thousands of people every year for all crimes, including drug-related offences. Just this past June, it was reported that thirteen men and women accused of drug offences were sentenced to death in front of a crowd of 10,000 in Guangdong Province.

Under international human rights law, the death penalty is not prohibited, but is heavily restricted. In countries that retain the death penalty, the law says it may only be imposed for the “most serious crimes” - specifically intentional crimes with lethal consequences. Human rights authorities and international drug control bodies have repeatedly confirmed that drug offences do not meet this threshold.

With the exception of this extreme fringe of countries aggressively pursuing disproportionately harsh penalties for drug crimes, there is growing international recognition that the use of death penalty for drug offences is a violation of the right to life, and a breach of the prohibition of torture. As the UN Secretary General recently affirmed, there is no place for this cruel, disproportionate and irreversible penalty in the 21st century.

On Human Rights Day 2017, we call on states to ensure that drug laws and policies are implemented in full compliance with international human rights law and standards to safeguard the dignity and lives of people like Alireza. This requires taking immediate measures to halt executions, commute death sentences, and abolish the death penalty for drug-related offences as a first step towards its full abolition.

Photo Nigel Brunsdon, Release Museum of Drug Policy, from the "Waiting Girls" by Sadegh Souri.