Achmad Ibrahim / AP

Executions for drug crimes: A stubborn ‘fringe’ trend

According to a new Harm Reduction International report, nearly 1,000 drug offenders are on death row in four countries

There are at least 900 people on death row for drug offenses in four Asian countries, with hundreds more on death row in a few more, according to a new report by Harm Reduction International, (HRI) a U.K.-based organization.

The report, to be released on Thursday, indicates that these 900 are held in Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and Pakistan, which are considered high application countries, or places where a death sentence is likely to be carried out — unlike symbolic application states such as the U.S. and Cuba, which don’t tend to execute drug offenders.

An unknown number are held in China, Iran and Vietnam, all countries that carry out executions for drug convictions.

Given the countries listed, the view might be that Asian countries commonly execute people for drug offenses. But Rick Lines, HRI's executive director, told Al Jazeera America that this is not the case and that the United Nations needs to engage with these states to change policy.

"We need to continue to emphasize that this small handful of countries represents an extreme fringe of the international community and even of the region itself," he said. "The vast majority of states that do not execute people for drug offenses and other governments, and U.N. agencies need to engage with this handful of countries as the extreme fringe they represent, particularly in U.N. forums on drugs."

Are executions the solution?

The HRI report, which will be released two days before World Day Against the Death Penalty (this year’s focus is on drug crimes), looks at the number of drug-related executions in some countries to highlight the alarming frequency with which such sentences are carried out in places like Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Iran executed an estimated 753 people in 2014. (The numbers aren’t exact and are taken from official reports and research done by rights groups.) Of those, 367 were put to death for drug-related crimes.

In Saudi Arabia, where, unlike in Iran, the death penalty is not mandatory for drug offenses, 41 of its 90 executions in 2014 were for drug crimes.

There’s no evidence showing that executing drug traffickers stems the flow of drugs through these countries.

Patrick Gallahue, who wrote the HRI report with Lines, told Al Jazeera America that "executing smugglers has had no impact on the market" for narcotics in these countries.

"They’re not executing the kingpins and warlords … but the most desperate, gullible and vulnerable," said Gallahue, describing the people who tend to take smuggling jobs and get arrested.

Ricky Gunawan, the director of the Jakarta-based LBH Masyarakat Community Legal Aid Institute, said that in Indonesia, where 12 of the 14 people executed for drug convictions so far this year were foreigners, there’s "no valid evidence presented by law enforcement" that executing drug offenders reduces rates of drug abuse.

He attributes Indonesia's harsh policies to domestic politics.

"This is a strategy by [President Joko Widodo's] administration to gain public support. Because in doing so, he will easily make a case for domestic sovereignty or provoke a sense or pride of nationalism," said Gunawan, who will take part in an international death penalty panel at the HRI conference being held in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, later this month. 

Although there are no government or law enforcement representatives on the panel, he is optimistic that things will change in other Asian countries, such as Singapore and Thailand, where numbers of executions have been down.

"There may be little hope of changing policies in Indonesia, given the stubbornness of the Indonesian government in response to this issue," he said, adding that it’s left to civil society groups "to convince the authorities and present the evidence that the death penalty doesn’t curb crime."

Need for UN push

When confronted about their execution policies, some states, such as Indonesia and Pakistan, reject international pressure and calls for leniency.

For example, when the European Union called for Pakistan to halt all pending executions in March, nothing changed. And in response to the international outcry over the execution of several foreigners, Widodo told Al Jazeera in March that his concern was for "Indonesia's next generation."

"You are welcome to see the rehabilitation centers. You will clearly see the impact of drug addiction on people … Don’t look only at the smugglers. You must also see those who are affected by drugs — 4.5 million," he said, adding that he is looking after his country’s "national interests."

Lines rejects the notion that international pressure equals meddling.

"The accusation of meddling was one that apartheid South Africa used to shield itself from criticism of its abhorrent policies. It's what the U.S. uses to defend Guantánamo," he said.

"When one nation's subjects are being illegally executed by another, I think people in those countries have every right to speak up," he said. "When death penalty states are accepting drug enforcement aid from Western states, aid that is supporting the death penalty infrastructure, I think people in those states have every right to speak up."

He added, "When human rights are being violated anywhere in the world, it is the obligation of the world community to meddle."

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