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DEATH PENALTY: Execution for Drug Offences Challenged

Pavol Stracansky

TBILISI, Nov 12 2010 (IPS) - Two Georgian women are facing the death sentence in Malaysia in a case that human rights campaigners say has highlighted worries over the continued imposition of capital punishment for drugs offences.

Babutsa Gorgadze, 26, and Darejan Kokhtashvili, 37, were arrested last month in Malaysia after they were found with more than 10 kilos of methamphetamine.

Under strict Malaysian laws the pair, both mothers, are now facing mandatory death penalties if convicted and efforts are under way by Georgian authorities to stop the pair being sentenced to death if convicted.

Human rights campaigners say the case has brought into focus the dangers of imposing capital punishment for drugs crimes. The case took a new turn this week when Georgian media reported the husband of one of the women had confessed to Georgian police that he had been behind the drug smuggling, and that the women had gone to Malaysia unaware that they were carrying illegal narcotics.

Patrick Gallahue of the International Harm Reduction Association (IHRA), which has led a series of studies into the imposition of the death penalty for drug offences and campaigned against it, told IPS: “Cases like this highlight concerns over capital punishment, especially when enforced as a mandatory punishment.

“When there is no individualised consideration of the circumstances in a capital case, to impose a death sentence is a cruel and inhuman punishment as well as an arbitrary deprivation of life.”

There are currently 32 countries which retain the death penalty, in some cases as a mandatory sentence, for narcotics offences.

New legislation was also passed just last month in Gambia which could see the death penalty imposed for possession of more than 250g of cocaine or heroin.

Research by the IHRA, among others, has shown that in some countries drug offenders make up a significant proportion of all annual executions. Available statistics show that hundreds of people are executed worldwide for drugs crimes every year. But many countries do not release figures on executions and it is believed that the real figure could be more than a thousand.

However, while many states retain capital punishment for narcotics offences but do not use it and others do so only rarely, a handful of countries, including Malaysia, Singapore, China, Iran, Vietnam and Saudi Arabia, have been identified as carrying out high numbers of executions every year.

These countries say that capital punishment acts as a deterrent to traffickers. But critics reject the claim.

Tsira Chanturia, South Caucas Regional Director for Penal Reform International, told IPS: “In Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand, reports indicate that a high proportion of death sentences are imposed upon those convicted of drug offences. However, this does not deter individuals from committing such crimes.

“There is no credible evidence that the death penalty deters serious crime in general more effectively than other punishments.”

They also argue mandatory use of capital punishment in cases of drug offences is an inappropriate punishment when the circumstances of many of those convicted are taken into account.

“In many countries, those arrested tend to be foreign, young, vulnerable and from difficult circumstances. In some cases, there is a very real possibility they were deceived about what they were transporting.

“At the very least, there is a chance that those who were arrested were misled about the risks involved,” Gallahue told IPS.

Rights groups point to a high proportion of foreigners sentenced to death for drug offences in some countries and also question the fairness of trials for drug crimes, pointing to the fact that in some countries drug cases are referred to special courts where accepted standards of fair trial may not be met.

The specific legal paragraph of Malaysian law under which Goradze and Kokthashvili have been charged breaks international legal standards as it assumes the defendant is guilty unless they can prove their own innocence, according to Amnesty International.

There are also deeper concerns over the legality of capital punishment for drugs offences and the sometimes unwitting support of countries supporting abolition of the death penalty for its continued use in retentionist states.

Under the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), countries retaining the death penalty should only use it for “the most serious crimes.” Human rights bodies, including the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Torture and other cruel or inhuman punishments, have said that drug offences should not be defined as among the most serious crimes and that countries still using capital punishment should only impose it for wilful murder.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has also said it is opposed to the death penalty for drugs crimes.

Governments of countries using the death penalty for drug offences have repeatedly said that drugs offences are among “the most serious crimes” and pointed to rulings in their own courts justifying its legality. They also say capital punishment is an accepted social norm in their society.

Some also justify it on the grounds that is serves the needs of society as a whole despite concerns over the rights of the individual.

In a commentary published in the UK newspaper The Guardian in June this year for instance, Singapore’s Ambassador to Ireland, Michael Teo, wrote: “Every society strikes its own balance between the rights of the individual and the rights of society. Capital punishment is an integral part of our successful comprehensive anti-drug strategy. Our tough stance against drugs has saved tens of thousands of lives from the drug menace.”

A report by IHRA released earlier this year also showed how abolitionist states helping fund efforts to battle the international drug trade are, in some cases, actually helping bring about executions for drug crimes.

The group cited case studies where such programmes supported by UNODC and funded by, among others, the European Union and states such as Sweden, Australia, and the UK had ended in the execution of convicts.

In another case, a UNODC project jointly funded by Austria and the European Commission to help combat drug crime on the Afghan-Iran border led to the equipping of control posts along the border. IHRA said that during the course of the project between 2004 and 2008, 16 Afghan children were arrested by Iranian border authorities, convicted of drug trafficking and sentenced to death by hanging.

Rights groups argue that there is now a question mark over international organisations’ complicity in subsequent human rights violations when these operations are carried out and that all similar drug enforcement projects must be closely examined prior to funding.

Jacqueline Macalesher, death penalty project manager at Penal Reform International, told IPS: “In funding projects like this donor organisations should perform a full risk assessment of the human rights ramifications of that project, including the fact that the people arrested under that programme could be sentenced to death.”

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