The use of society’s ultimate sanction, the death penalty, has been declining around the world for decades. In 1977, only 16 countries had abolished the death penalty; by 2015, 140 had either abolished it or for all practical purposes abandoned it. Nineteen American states and the District of Columbia have no death penalty, and in 2014, executions were carried out in only seven states.
However, over the same period, the number of countries applying the death penalty for drugs offenses has increased. In 1979 there were 10 countries that executed drug offenders. By 1985, that number had increased to 22; by 2000, to 36 (although it declined to 33 in 2012). Some years have seen as many as 1,000 drug-related executions, many of them in Iran, Singapore and China, where precise figures are unavailable. Thousands of individuals are on death row in Asia, the Middle East and parts of Africa for drug offenses.
Indonesia offers a particularly gruesome example. In 2015, 14 prisoners there, mostly foreign nationals, were killed by firing squad.
Indonesian President Joko Widodo took office in October 2014. He immediately declared that the country was facing a “drug emergency situation,” thus justifying the decision to carry out the executions in the face of concerted international pressure — notably from Australia, two of whose citizens were executed last year. He zealously pursued the death sentences, saying he would reject any appeal for clemency. According to Amnesty International, Indonesia held at least 121 people on death row in 2015, 54 of them for drug offenses.
As part of its intensified war on drugs, Indonesia has targeted drug users. The National Narcotics Agency recently revived compulsory treatment, pledging to place 100,000 drug users in treatment or rehabilitation centers last year. This month the new narcotics board chief, Budi Waseso, created an international furor by calling for a prison island for drug smugglers, surrounded by crocodiles and piranhas. He also called for the reinstatement of the late Indonesian dictator Suharto’s infamous program in which elite military personnel were authorized to conduct extrajudicial public killings of anyone the regime considered criminal. A week ago, police raids on drug-use hotspots in Jakarta and Medan left at least four people dead — two of them police officers.
One person executed in Indonesia last year was Brazilian citizen Rodrigo Gularte, who was caught with two friends trying to take cocaine hidden in surfboards into the country in 2004. He took responsibility for the seized drugs, allowing his companions to be released. He accepted a state-appointed lawyer and never received competent legal representation at trial. His first lawyer acknowledged that he used drugs. Today that might be accepted as a mitigating factor, but at the time, it merely helped the prosecution make its case and secure the death sentence.
The mitigating factor that should have protected him from the firing squad is that he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder as a teenager. He was often impulsive, which likely explains how he came to be smuggling drugs. In prison, his condition worsened, and he attempted suicide. Eventually he was further diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia accompanied by delusions and hallucinations. It was widely reported that he understood he was going to be killed only as he was being led to the site of the execution.
After Indonesia denied requests for Gularte to be transferred to a mental health facility in 2014, his cousin Angelita Muxfedlt went to Jakarta and appointed my office as his legal representative, together with other prominent legal and human rights groups. He was convicted despite the suspicious release of his co-defendants, despite his incompetent counsel and despite international outrage, especially from Brazil, where the last state execution took place in 1876. Even the diagnosis of his severe mental illness was not enough to earn him a reprieve.
Indonesia clearly violated international law by executing a prisoner with mental health issues. He should have received treatment for his multiple illnesses. Instead, in a stunning act of retribution, the state put him to death.
He can be considered a victim of the global war on drugs. But the punitive drug control regime that was built on international agreements like the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs is coming under increasing pressure. In 2014, for example, the International Narcotics Control Board urged governments to abolish the death penalty.
There is growing recognition that sentencing someone to death for a drug offense is a violation of basic human rights. Around the world, the vast majority of death row prisoners are poor and often poorly educated or incapable of comprehending what they were getting involved in, like Gularte. They are often badly advised, living or dying on the whim of a capricious legal system.
As some countries relax their regulations against the recreational use of drugs like marijuana, the inconsistency across international jurisdictions is thrown into sharp focus. In at least 12 countries, some offenses related to marijuana and hashish are punishable by death. In Malaysia in 2010, the majority of those sentenced to death for drug-related crimes were convicted of marijuana or hashish offenses. While some countries look to alternative methods of managing drugs, including decriminalization, others continue to punish similar activities by execution.
There is no evidence that the death penalty works as a deterrent, which is the reason most often cited for its continued use. People are still taking drugs into Indonesia, and heroin seizures have not stopped in Iran.
This year’s United Nations special session on drugs should include discussion of the death penalty. The world must consign the death penalty to history, where it belongs.