Executions for drug offences globally fall nearly 90% in three years, as move toward death penalty abolition gathers pace

Date: 26 February 2019

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New report finds Saudi Arabia to be top executioner for drug offences in 2018, while state secrecy in China clouds official figures

LONDON (26 FEBRUARY 2019) – The number of known annual executions for drug offences fell from 755 to 91 between 2015 and 2018, according to new data released today by Harm Reduction International (HRI). Nearly 40% (4,366) of all executions globally were for drug offence from 2008-2018.

The report, The Death Penalty for Drug Offences: Global Overview 2018, reveals that judicial reforms carried out in Iran in 2017 are a driving force for the global decline in executions, with the number carried out in country falling 90% since 2017 to 23 last year.  

At least 35 countries and territories retain the death penalty for drug offences in law, though only four carried out executions in 2018 – Saudi Arabia (at least 59), Iran (at least 23), Singapore (9) and China (figures are a state secret). 

Giada Girelli, HRI’s Human Rights Analyst and the report author, said: “The fall in executions is undeniably positive; but, far too many people are still sentenced to death row for low-level drug offences where they suffer serious human rights violations. There is simply no evidence that the death penalty serves as a deterrent and this inhumane practice must be abolished immediately.”

The report found that at least 7,000 people are languishing on death row globally for drug offences, with the majority imprisoned in Iran. A number of these people are at the lowest levels of the drug trade, socio-economically vulnerable, are tried without due process and/or have inadequate legal representation.

Samantha Chong, a Malaysian lawyer and drug policy reform advocate, said: “As a defence counsel and former prosecutor, I’ve seen first-hand how drug laws disproportionately affect society’s most marginalised. It is high time for the Malaysian government to abolish death penalty and adopt evidence-based drug policies. Harsh penalties simply do not reduce drug use and are detrimental to the health and safety of our communities.”

While there was a significant fall in executions in 2018, and Malaysia announced its intention to pursue abolition of the death penalty in October 2018, events elsewhere threaten progress toward global abolition. 

After implementing a bloody crackdown on the drug trade in May last year, Bangladesh voted to expand use of the death penalty for drug offences in October. In addition, Sri Lanka’s president has recently threatened to end the country’s 43-year moratorium on implementing the death penalty and begin executing individuals convicted of drug trafficking. 

The Global Overview 2018 and other cutting-edge research will be showcased in April 2019 at HRI’s 26th international conference in Porto, Portugal. This will bring together over 1,000 delegates from 70 countries working on drugs, health and human rights. 

PRESS ENQUIRIES:                      

Edward Fox – Tel: (+44) 7414 010 188; Email: ed.fox@hri.global

  1. Harm Reduction International is a leading NGO dedicated to reducing the negative health, social and legal impacts of drug use and drug policy. We promote the rights of people who use drugs and their communities through research and advocacy to help achieve a world where drug policies and laws contribute to healthier, safer societies. 
  2. Harm Reduction International has tracked use of the death penalty for drug offences since 2007. The Global Overview 2018 is HRI’s eighth report on this subject.
  3. Harm Reduction International will present the findings of the Global Overview 2018, in Brussels at the 7th World Congress Against the Death Penalty on Tuesday 26 February from 4:30pm-6:30pm (CET).  

© 2019 Harm Reduction International.

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