Death sentence for drug convicts is not acceptable
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Death sentence for drug convicts is not acceptable

Nearly half of all state-sanctioned deaths around the world are for drug-related offences. This is not acceptable or justifiable and needs to end. My home country of Malaysia has taken steps to change this. Thailand and other countries should follow suit.

At least 467 people were executed for drug-related offences last year, making up approximately 42% of all known global executions. In other words, almost one in two convicts -- known to be executed in 2023 -- were executed for drug-related offences. The proportion of total global executions imposed for drug-related offences has been steadily rising in recent years. In 2023 alone, at least 375 people were sentenced to death for drug offences -- a stark rise of over 20% from the previous year.

Every year, hundreds of people continue to be sentenced to death for drug-related offences. Based on available data, there are at least 3,000 people on death row worldwide, and there are likely many more in future. In 2023, drug-related executions were confirmed to have taken place in China, Iran, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Singapore. It is also highly likely that executions took place in Vietnam and North Korea, but could not be confirmed due to censorship. Harm Reduction International found a 44% increase in executions for drug-related offences since 2022 and a staggering 1,450% increase since 2020.

All of these numbers are likely a gross undercount. They are coloured by a lack of data transparency and availability. Many countries do not disclose their use of the death penalty.

Drug-related offences also appear to drive the imposition of capital punishment in Thailand. Official figures indicate that more than half of all the people on death row in Thailand are there for drug-related offences. Among the women on death row in Thailand, this number rises to 92%. In Thailand, too, information on the use of the death penalty for drug-related offences is difficult to access, so these numbers could be a partial picture.

The use of the death penalty for drug-related offences is in clear contravention of international human rights standards, as it does not meet the threshold of "most serious crimes" to which capital punishment should be limited. Yet 34 countries retain the death penalty for drug-related offences, at least five countries are known to be actively executing people for such offences, and at least 19 countries have people on death row.

Amid these distressing developments are some glimmers of hope. In my home country of Malaysia, parliament adopted two landmark laws in 2023. The Abolition of Mandatory Death Penalty Act 2023 and Revision of the Sentence of Death and Imprisonment for Natural Life (Temporary Jurisdiction of The Federal Court) Act 2023. These legal changes removed the death penalty as a mandatory punishment for a number of offences, including drug trafficking. This allows for full judicial discretion for the court to consider the mitigating circumstances of each person before meting out the death sentence, including cases involving drugs. These landmark laws also let people sentenced to death for drug-related offences prior to the reform have their sentences reviewed by the Federal Court.

The Malaysian government took its first step towards the abolition of the death penalty by instating a moratorium on executions in 2018. A year later, in 2019, they established a Special Committee (Special Committee to Review Alternative Sentences to the Mandatory Death Penalty) to consider death penalty abolition in the country. The resulting study was presented in 2022, which was followed by a statement by the minister in the Prime Minister's Department (Parliament and Law) that the government had agreed to abolish the mandatory death penalty.

A total of 906 prisoners sentenced to mandatory death and having exhausted their appeals have submitted their applications for their sentences to be reviewed. The Federal Court, in these review proceedings, has not affirmed any death sentence for drug trafficking offences. Not long ago, this would have seemed impossible in Malaysia. This should give us hope for those countries where it seems impossible today.

In 2023, Pakistan became the first country in over a decade to abolish the death penalty for drug-related offences. In recent years, Pakistan's Supreme Court has not handed down many death sentences or execution orders for drug-related offences. This reform could benefit hundreds of people who may remain on death row for drug-related sentences imposed by lower courts in Pakistan. It is also a powerful statement in support of the many Pakistanis who are on death row in other countries for similar offences.

While these are positive changes, they are not enough. The use of the death penalty has to be systematically and permanently curbed. Death penalty sentences for drug-related offences make up such a large proportion of executions that we cannot abolish the death penalty without reforming drug policies. Drug policies must be based on human rights, have proportional sentences, and follow due process and fair trial rights.

Adeeba Kamarulzaman is a Professor of Medicine and Infectious Diseases and Pro Vice Chancellor and President of Monash University, Malaysia. She is also a commissioner of Global Commission on Drug Policy.

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