A comprehensive study released today by the International Harm Reduction Association finds that hundreds of people are executed for drug offences each year around the world, a figure that very likely exceeds one thousand when taking into account those countries that keep their death penalty statistics secret. In many instances, foreign nationals make up the majority of those executed or on death row.

The report, The Death Penalty for Drug Offences: Global Overview 2010 was released today on the opening day of the 19th session of the UN Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice, taking place in Vienna this week.

The report is the first detailed country-by-country overview of the death penalty for drugs, monitoring both national legislation and state practice of enforcement. Of the states worldwide that retain the death penalty, 32 jurisdictions maintain laws that prescribe the death penalty for drug offences. In some states, drug offenders make up a significant portion – if not the outright majority – of those executed each year.

Despite the large number of jurisdictions with the death penalty for drugs in law, relatively few carry out executions with regularity, or in large numbers. China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Viet Nam are widely known to execute high numbers of drug offenders each year. Historically, Malaysia and Singapore have also put many people to death for drug-related crimes. In many cases, those executed are foreigners.

“Of course the issue is not just about foreigners being sentenced to death, but this highlights the need for international attention to this issue,” said Rick Lines, Deputy Director of IHRA and co-author of the report. “Those governments that think this issue doesn’t concern them need to think again, and work to end the practice.”

“It is sadly ironic that some countries with the worst record on the use of the death penalty for drugs at the same time recognise the need to address drug related harms as a health concern, and to act to prevent HIV/AIDS among drug using populations,” said Professor Gerry Stimson, Executive Director of IHRA. “They are scaling up needle and syringe exchange and opioid substitution therapy, as our Global State of Harm Reduction 2010 report shows. But harm reduction programmes can never be fully delivered in a climate of repression and fear. The two positions are incompatible.”

While many governments that retain the death penalty argue that drug offences fall under the umbrella of ‘most serious crimes’ enshrined in international law this is not the perspective of the UN Human Rights Committee nor the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, both of which have stated that drug offences do not constitute ‘most serious crimes’ and that executions for such offences are therefore in violation of international human rights law.

“Countries with the death penalty for drug offences are not only violating human rights law, they are clinging to a criminal justice model that is ineffective and unnecessary, said Lines. “IHRA is calling on an  immediate moratorium on all executions for drug offences, a commuting  of  all existing death sentences for drug offences  and an amendment of legislation to remove the death penalty for all drug offences,” concluded Lines.

Key findings of the report:


Sometimes China is quite open about its executions. Since 1991, for example, China has used 26 June, the UN International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking, as an occasion to stage mass public trials and executions of drug offenders. In 1992 Amnesty International recorded a total of seventy-six executions during a seven-day period around 26 June. In 2001 over fifty people were convicted and publicly executed for drug crimes at mass rallies, at least one of which was broadcast on state television. The following year, 26 June was marked by sixty-four public executions in rallies across the country. The largest public execution took place in the south western city of Chongqing, where twenty-four people were shot.


Of the 317 people estimated to have been executed in Iran in 2007, at least 115 – over one-third – were executed for drug offences. Of the 346 executions documented by Amnesty International in 2008, 96 of were convicted for drug offences. In 2009 the total number of number of people executed for drug offences doubled to 172, almost half of all executions that year. The number of people on death row in Iran is difficult to surmise, although past reporting indicates that drug offenders account for a large portion of those awaiting execution. It has been reported, for example, that 60 per cent of prisoners in Iran are incarcerated for drug offences. The International Federation for Human Rights reports that in late 2008 there were 500 people on death row for drug-related offences in the north-eastern city of Mashhad alone.

Executing Foreigners

Of the possible 1,000-plus people executed, as well as those who are sentenced to die, every year a significant proportion of them are from abroad.  China is known to have nationals of Kenya, Taiwan, Malawi, the Philippines, Mongolia, South Korea and Nigeria, on death row for drug offences.  In December, China executed Akmal Shaikh, a British national and father of five, charged with bringing four kg of heroin into the country.  The execution was carried out despite evidence that he was mentally ill.  In April, four Japanese nationals were also executed for trafficking in amphetamine-type-stimulants.

In Indonesia in mid-2009, out of a total of 111 prisoners on death row, 56 were there for drug offences, and roughly ‘four out of five’ of those were from abroad. These include Australian nationals, Scott Rush, Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, who were arrested in 2005 and convicted of drug-related offences.  They were subsequently sentenced to death, even though Rush was just 19 at the time he was charged.  Chan and London-born Sukumaran, were also just 21 and 24 respectively at the time of their arrests.

In Singapore, at least three foreigners have been executed for drugs since 2006, including Australian national Nguyen Tuong Van, and Nigerian national Iwuchukwu Amara Tochi and Okeke Nelson Malachy, reportedly from South Africa.  Tochi was just 19 when he was arrested and 21 when he was sent to the gallows.

In Kuwait, there have been at least 14 executions for drug offences since 1998 – and it is believed that the overwhelming majority, if not all, were from abroad.

In Saudi Arabia, IHRA estimates that 36 of the 40 executions for drugs identified in 2007 were of foreign nationals, including people from Iraq, Pakistan, India, Thailand, Nigeria and Afghanistan. In 2008 at least 17 of the 22 drug offenders executed were foreigners, including citizens of Syria, Pakistan, Jordan, Nigeria, India and Iraq.


Press release from the International Harm Reduction Association (IHRA), the leading organisation promoting a harm reduction approach to all psychoactive substances on a global basis. IHRA exists to prevent the negative social, health, economic and criminal impacts of illicit drugs, alcohol and tobacco for individuals, communities and society. IHRA combines a public health and human rights based approach to reduce drug-related harms. It builds strategic alliances and partnerships with national and international organisations, supports the engagement of people affected by drugs and alcohol, promotes the human rights of affected populations and counters their marginalisation and stigmatisation.


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