Thursday, November 4, 2010

Pharma firms enable executions

European Union officials are reluctant to tighten up rules covering the trade in products designed for torture or the death penalty, despite suggestions that a British company has been exporting lethal injection drugs used in executions.

During the last week of October, Jeffrey Landrigan was executed by the U.S. state of Arizona. The state’s attorney general has revealed that the sodium thiopental used to kill Landrigan was imported specially from Britain because of a shortage of the substance domestically.

Opponents of the death penalty are seeking that an EU regulation on the trade in the tools of torture and capital punishment is strengthened so that pharmaceutical companies would be banned from selling sodium thiopental to executioners.

But the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, has indicated that it is averse to revising the regulation – dating from 2005 – given that sodium thiopental also has medicinal applications.

Asked if the Brussels authorities would be investigating the use of a British-made substance in Arizona or examining how the regulation can be tightened, a Commission spokesman said that while his institution is opposed to the death penalty, it recognised that sodium thiopental is “widely used” as an anaesthetic in medicine.

“The EU has rules that prohibit the trade in goods used for capital punishment and torture and ill-treatment, as well as the supply of technical assistance related to such goods,” the spokesman said. “These rules, however, do not include sodium thiopental in the lists of prohibited and controlled goods. Sodium thiopental is on the list of essential drugs of the World Health Organisation.”

The 2005 regulation is accompanied by lists of goods that are either banned or subject to controls. While sodium thiopental is not explicitly mentioned on these lists, the regulation prohibits the trade in “automatic drug injection systems designed for the purpose of execution of human beings by the administration of a lethal chemical purpose.” Another possibility, according to human rights campaigners, is for sodium thiopental to be designated a controlled substance that may be exported to hospitals and clinics but not to authorities that carry out executions.

Richard Dieter, director of the Death Penalty Information Centre in Washington, argued that ways of bolstering the regulation should be examined. “I wouldn’t think that a company would want to be associated with having its drug used to kill people,” he said. “This is sort of like extraditing someone to face the death penalty.”

Reprieve, a human rights group based in London, announced Nov. 2 that it is suing the British government over the exports. The legal action follows an appeal made by Reprieve that an emergency order be issued to regulate sodium thiopental. Vince Cable, Britain’s business secretary, has rejected the call, claiming that if the U.S. did not import lethal injection drugs from Britain it would simply find them elsewhere. “An export restriction imposed by the United Kingdom is very unlikely to be effective in preventing any execution taking place in the United States, given that the drug is generally available and traded globally,” Cable wrote, in a letter to Reprieve’s lawyers.

Reprieve is acting on behalf of Ed Zagorski, who is scheduled to be executed in Tennessee in January next year. Tennessee is one of several states running low on lethal injection drugs; others include Kentucky, Oklahoma and Missouri.

“It is ironic that Ed Zagorski is on death row, accused – falsely, he insists -- of playing a role in a drug deal gone bad,” said Clive Stafford Smith from Reprieve. “If the British government continues to adhere to its policy of gutless inaction, he will die as a result of another drug deal gone bad, this time with a British company pocketing 18,000 dollars in blood money.”

Only one company in Britain makes sodium thiopental. That firm, Archimedes Pharma UK, has insisted it has no control over how the substance is used and denied knowingly providing the drug for use in the Arizona execution.

However, Arizona is known to have bought enough supplies of the drug from Britain for four executions. Despite acknowledging that the drug came from Britain, Arizona has refused to give further details of where and how it obtained the substances used to kill Landrigan. Arizona mounted – and won – a legal challenge in the US Supreme Court, after a lower court had ordered it to reveal the identity of the drug’s supplier.

Nycomed, another European company that produces sodium thiopental, said that it does not distribute the drug in the U.S.

In an appeal to the European Commission, Amnesty International has asked that “urgent assurances” be sought that future exports of sodium thiopental will not be used for executions.

David Nichols, a specialist on foreign policy in Amnesty’s Brussels office, said the Commission had the power to either strengthen the regulation or take action under its current provisions in order to control the supply of lethal injection drugs. “This is something that they could actually do tomorrow,” he added. “Given the fact that other states in the U.S. are also running out of the drug and looking for alternative supplies, it is important that they act now to stop further transfers."

·First published by Inter Press Service (, 4 November 2010

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