The death penalty for drugs: a central point during the regional congress


By Lauranne Mailhabiau, on 23 June 2015

Senator Datuk Paul Low Seng Kuan, minister in the prime minister’s department in Malaysia, opened the regional congress by saying “policies are not working; drug mules are being caught when kingpin go free”. He explained that the Malaysian government was considering a reduction of the maximum sentence from death penalty to life prison.

Say no to drugs at all costs

Rick Lines, executive director of Harm Reduction International, explained that “33 countries and territories maintain the death penalty for drug offenses. International drug control law is based on 3 UN conventions from 1961, 1971 and 1988. The 1988 convention creates an obligation for countries to adopt a domestic law against drugs. Article 3.5 of this convention highlights aggravating circumstances for drug trafficking.” As a consequence, without those aggravating charges, none of those drug crimes can be considered as most serious crimes in international law. Rick Lines also insisted on the expression « Particularly serious crime » used in the Convention. “What are the steps between most serious crimes, particularly serious crimes and serious crimes?” he asked.

Ricky Gunawan, Lembaga Bantuan Hukum Maysarakat’s director, followed with the example of Indonesia. He explained that the population was raised with the “say no to drug” campaign. “It was easier for politicians to capitalize around this and gain sympathy”.

Puri Kencana Putri, researcher for KontraS, also underlined the unfair trials some of the prisoners are exposed to. Rodrigo Gularte who was mentally ill was not accompanied by an interpreter and had no money to afford a lawyer. Putri also mentioned the issue of corruption and said that Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran were asked by the judges to pay 130 000 $ to receive a judgment of less than 20 years of jail.

Planning ahead for the UNGASS on drugs 

Several side events were organized in parallel of the congress, including one on Iran and one on advocacy strategies on the death penalty for drugs and UNGASS by Harm Reduction International and the World Coalition ahead of World Day against the Death Penalty.

Gloria Lai, from the International Drug Policy Consortium, spoke about the ineffectiveness and harmness of current drug policy measures. The last UN General Assembly Special Session on Drugs in 1998 focused on the total elimination of drugs from the world. “But today we are not in a drug free world, there are more drugs, more easily accessible and at a younger age” said Gloria Lai.

The key to make things change is to have a strong civil society with an alliance between abolitionists and drug policy reform civil society. Rick Lines from Harm Reduction International said: “it is almost impossible to discuss human rights issues related to drugs, the focus on the death penalty is strategic”.

Drugs and the death penalty relate to all abolitionist states whether they have citizens on death row for drugs abroad or whether they give money, equipment or training to arrest drug smugglers in states where they can face the death penalty. “How can you give money to a state which carries out executions to fight drugs?” asked Rick Lines. The 2016 UNGASS on the World Drug Problem will be a good opportunity to get civil society’s voice heard to highlight human rights violations, including the death penalty.

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