Record number of people executed for drug offences in 2023

In its annual report, Harm Reduction International says at least 467 drug-related executions took place last year.

Candles at a vigil for death row inmate Tangaraju Suppiah. There is a picture of him in the middle.
Tangaraju Suppiah was hanged last April after being convicted of drug trafficking in Singapore [File: How Hwee Young/EPA]

At least 467 people were executed for drug offences in 2023, a new record, according to Harm Reduction International (HRI), an NGO that has been tracking the use of the death penalty for drugs since 2007.

“Despite not accounting for the dozens, if not hundreds, of executions believed to have taken place in China, Vietnam, and North Korea, the 467 executions that took place in 2023 represent a 44% increase from 2022,” HRI said in its report, which was released on Tuesday.

Drug executions made up about 42 percent of all known death sentences carried out around the world last year, it added.

HRI said it had confirmed drug-related executions in countries including Iran, Kuwait and Singapore. China treats death penalty data as a state secret and secrecy surrounds the punishment in countries including Vietnam and North Korea.

“Information gaps on death sentences persist, meaning many (if not most) death sentences imposed in 2023 remain unknown,” the report said. “Most notably, no accurate figure can be provided for China, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia and Thailand. These countries are all believed to regularly impose a significant number of death sentences for drug offences.”

International law prohibits the use of the death penalty for crimes that are not intentional and of “the most serious” nature. The United Nations has stressed that drug offences do not meet that threshold.

Singapore has drawn international criticism after resuming the use of the death penalty in March 2022, following a two-year hiatus during the pandemic.

Some 11 executions, carried out by hanging, took place that year, and at least 16 people had been hanged as of November 2023, according to Human Rights Watch.

Among those executed was Saridewi Djamani, a Singaporean woman who was convicted of drug trafficking in 2018. She was the first woman to be executed in the city-state for almost 20 years.

“Singapore reversed the COVID-19 hiatus on executions, kicking its death row machinery into overdrive,” Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch said in the organisation’s annual report. “The government’s reinvigorated use of the death penalty merely highlighted its disregard for human rights protections and the inherent cruelty of capital punishment.”

Some countries have moved to reform their death penalty regimes in recent years with Malaysia ending the mandatory death sentence, including for drugs, and Pakistan removing the death penalty from the list of punishments that can be imposed for certain violations of its Control of Narcotics Substances Act.

Still, in other countries, defendants continued to be sentenced to death for drug offences.

HRI said such confirmed sentences last year increased by more than 20 percent from 2022. About half of those were passed by courts in Vietnam and a quarter in Indonesia.

At the end of 2023, some 34 countries continued to retain the death penalty for drug crimes.

In Singapore, there are just over 50 people on death row with all but two convicted of drug offences, according to the Transformative Justice Collective, a Singapore-based NGO that campaigns against the death penalty.

On February 28, Singapore hanged Bangladeshi national Ahmed Salim. He was the first person convicted of murder to be hanged in the city-state since 2019.

“Capital punishment is used only for the most serious crimes in Singapore that cause grave harm to the victim, or to society,” the Singapore Police Force said in a statement.

Source: Al Jazeera