Britain Bans Exports of Execution Drug Sought by U.S.

  • by William Fisher (new york)
  • Inter Press Service

The well-known legal charity, Reprieve, has been campaigning to secure a ban on the export of sodium thiopental to the U.S. for execution purposes for the past month. On Monday, the British government's secretary of state of business innovation and skills agreed to impose such an order.

The U.S. has run short of the drug, which is used in the execution protocol.

Reprieve said, 'Originally, Secretary Vince Cable refused to act for two reasons — the suggestion that if Britain did not provide the drugs someone else would, and the notion that sodium thiopental was exported to the U.S. for medical purposes.'

'The first reason was unworthy of a response — if something is immoral, it does not matter that someone else will commit the offence,' it said in a statement.

The legal charity and one of the UK's leading law firms, Leigh Day, say they 'proved that no sodium thiopental was imported from Europe to the U.S. for any medicinal use, and that it would be illegal to do so under the regulations promulgated by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA).'

The charity added, 'To their credit, Archimedes Pharma, which may unwittingly have been the source of the drugs used to execute prisoners, did not oppose the ban. Furthermore, the pharmaceutical company actively supported the effort to prove that the drugs were not legitimately imported into the US. '

Reprieve Director Clive Stafford Smith said, 'There is urgent work to do. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation — so named, notwithstanding their plan to execute a number of prisoners — expects to receive enough drugs to kill 86 people this week, perhaps as early as today, probably again from Britain. The British government must take active and urgent steps to prevent this from happening, and to make up for the delay in imposing a ban.'

But Stafford Smith had kind words for the manufacturer. 'Let me congratulate Archimedes Pharma for doing the right thing as well. This should be a lesson to other companies that purport to be ethical — words are not enough. You have to take action.'

Despite the shortage of one of the drugs in the execution protocol, death sentences continue in the U.S.

On Oct. 25, Jeffery Landrigan was executed in Arizona using drugs supplied by a British company, despite a plea for clemency from the judge who sentenced him to death.

Reprieve said, 'The Arizona consignment was sufficient for four executions, so the drugs sourced in Britain will contribute to three more deaths.'

The following week the U.S. lawyers for Edmund Zagorski contacted Reprieve with a plea for help: Tennessee was seeking to purchase the drugs to kill Zagorski, apparently from the same British company.

On Oct. 28, Reprieve and Leigh Day contacted the government and asked for emergency measures to be taken to avoid British complicity in Zagorski's execution.

On Nov. 1, Cable responded that the British government would take no such step, arguing that sodium thiopental had medicinal uses in the U.S. The following day, Leigh Day filed a judicial review.

The British government opposed an immediate and temporary export ban although the main pharmaceutical company involved, Archimedes Pharma, did not. No such order was issued, in part because the Tennessee authorities had said that they would secure the drugs on Nov. 25 at the earliest.

Reprieve said, 'It transpired that the Tennessee authorities had deceived everyone, and had already received the drugs on Oct. 26. The source remains secret to date, but may well have been the UK,' Reprieve said.

Ed Zagorski is scheduled to die on Jan. 11, 2011. He has been on death row in Tennessee for almost 27 years, and Reprieve says he has been a model prisoner.

He protests his innocence, and an independent assessment from Physicians for Human Rights concluded that he had been 'tortured' into implicating himself. The original trial prosecutor offered a life sentence, with eligibility for parole — evincing a clear view that the death penalty was not a necessary punishment.

Meanwhile, other desperate states sought sodium thiopental from abroad. California expects to receive enough to kill 86 prisoners this week. Oklahoma is trying to use phenobarbital, the drug used to kill animals, as an alternative.

The 35 U.S. states that practice the death penalty have executed 1,233 prisoners since 1976. In 2010, executions will number 47, down from 52 a year earlier.

Some 3,261 prisoners are currently on death row. States executing the most prisoners since 1976 were Texas (466) and Virginia (108). One hundred thirty-eight prisoners have been freed from death row, largely as a result of new DNA evidence.

© Inter Press Service (2010) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service