Will we see an end to the death penalty in our lifetime?

A talk by Dan Dolan of Reprieve                   

 How about this death row prisoner’s definition of Capital Punishment?

Them without the capital get the punishment. 

Dan Dolan. Picture: Reprieve

This was how Dan Dolan launched his talk on the work of Reprieve, which started by taking on the defence of British nationals on the USA’s death row and, 30 years later takes on any nationality. They expose the torture and unjust sentencing of Guantanamo inmates but their chief mission is to end the Death Penalty – on the grounds that it is not a deterrent, but an expensive public policy disaster.  They work mostly as ‘lawyers in courts’ but also know how to influence ‘the court of public opinion’.

Their focus is twofold: first, a campaign to end the use of lethal injection in the USA and second, to fight the use of the death penalty for drug-related crime in Iran, Pakistan and elsewhere.  Dan explained that in the context of the gas chamber, hanging, and firing squad, the use of lethal injection gave a veneer of respectability to the death penalty.  But ‘humane execution’ is a myth – the drugs are not designed by clinicians, and are administered by untrained prison staff.  

Their investigations amazingly found that ‘Dream Pharmer’, the main supplier of death row drugs to the USA, was actually one man operating from behind a London driving school with a cupboard-full of imported drugs from the EU!  After initially losing their case against the UK government, Reprieve, following judicial review, achieved a ban on specific lethal drug exports.  This UK ban then became an EU one.

 Next, the Danish pharmaceutical firm Lundbeck was persuaded to apply distribution controls to prevent the inadvertent supplying of companies feeding death row executions. 30 businesses followed in 6 years and with that supply failure came a pause in executions.  And with that pause came reflection.  Utah, Kansas and New Hampshire are looking at a moratorium.  Those that are looking elsewhere for suppliers (Texas, Georgia, and Mississippi) are more exposed to ‘the court of public opinion’ – a public gaze directed at botched executions.  

Reprieve’s methods are pragmatic – focusing not on moral arguments but on tracing sources and support structures: ‘throwing sand in the wheels of the machinery of death’.

The second focus of Reprieve’s current work is withdrawing EU aid to drug-related executions, chiefly in Iran and Pakistan which account hugely for the global total. (Iran hanged 600 last year, Pakistan has 112 on death row.)  Here the ‘chain of complicity’ is being investigated. The officials who arrested and prosecuted Arshad Ahmed were trained by UK staff, used scanners provided by UK aid and received UK legal assistance in the making of their laws.  The innocent ‘mule’  was the only prosecution among 25 arrests – and he awaits the death sentence.

So the policy is both unjust and counter-productive – with an increase in drugs trafficking and a heroin confiscation of only 2 – 4 %.  Reprieve persuaded the UK to make ‘Raid Aid’ conditional on Pakistan renouncing the death penalty.  Now 6 EU countries have withdrawn ‘Raid Aid’ to focus on rehabilitation and give law-enforcement support only when not death-penalty related. 

The analysis of agency – the use of leverage and the building of ‘coalitions of interest’ – are the methods that Reprieve (with only 30 staff) has employed so effectively.  However Dan wryly admitted that the possibility of ending the Death Penalty in our lifetime has perhaps receded significantly given this week’s US election result. 

Our thanks to Dan Dolan and to New Forest Amnesty for hosting this lively and informative talk.

Hosted by New Forest Amnesty in The Lymington Centre on 12 November 2016.

Read our review of Clive Stafford Smith’s book Injustice 

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Death penalty review

DEATH PENALTY SUMMARY: mid to end of April 2016

Interim International Update (from 14.4.16 – 28.4.16)

Date format: day/month/year


o   14.4.16 – Mya Foa, Death Penalty Director of Reprieve stated, ‘

It is easy for Ministers to condemn the death penalty from Foreign Office briefing rooms.  But if the words are to mean anything, the UK must be willing to engage in targeted ways on specific cases, including making its concerns public where appropriate.  The countries driving a global surge in executions are amongst the country’s closest allies.  This gives us a voice and we should use it in service of our values.

She highlights Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and also Iran, where the recent resumption of diplomatic relations demonstrates how we can make a difference.  She quotes the instance of how David Cameron’s intervention in 2013 in the cases of three young men who had faced torture and abuse, and were given death sentences, had contributed to their pardon and release.

o   24.4.16 – Catherine Dunmore, a young lawyer from Swindon, who supported Amnesty while at secondary school, is about to spend 3 months in Florida, working as an unpaid volunteer for Amicus.  This organisation provides legal representation for those on death row – For anyone who might wish to support her, please go to Crowdfunder appeal   The Salisbury Group wishes Catherine well.

  • USA –

o   14.4.16 – Non Profit Quarterly have reported on the steady decline in executions since 2009 – from 52 texas executionto 28 in 2015.  They attribute this in part to changing public opinion and increased media scrutiny, but also to the activism of death penalty opponents which has led to the limited availability of drugs essential in the use of the lethal injection. 

The review shows that, while 31 states have the death penalty, only 4 are actively executing prisoners using lethal injection – Missouri, Texas, Alabama and Georgia.  Florida are currently reviewing their procedures, while Louisiana, Virginia, Arizona and Arkansas have, or are about to, use the last of their supplies.  Ohio have had to re- schedule their executions, and Nebraska are looking for a legal source of drugs.

The Danish Company Lundbeck were exposed as the suppliers of phenobarbital by Maya Foya of Reprieve, and the campaign against its supply and use was joined by Amnesty International.  One of Lundbeck’s straplines on its UK site is: ‘Improving human life for almost a century.’  Although a number of states are considering alternative methods of execution, it is hoped that the delays and setbacks will provide sufficient time for the Supreme Court to consider the constitutionality of the death penalty.

o   Texas

  • Pablo Vasquez, convicted of murder and on death row for 17 years, was executed on 6.4.16
  • Robert Pruett’s execution, scheduled for 27th April, will now take place on 21.6.16
  • Charles Flores is to be executed on 2.6.16
  • Robert Roberson                             21.6.16
  • Perry Williams                                 14.7.16
  • Ramino Gonzales                            10.8.16
  • Rolando Ruiz                                     31.8.16
  • Robert Jennings                               14.9.16
  • Terry Edwards                                     19.10.16

United Nations – 19.4.16 – The first special session held in nearly 20 years to address drug policy resulted in tensions between countries as to whether criminalisation and punishment, or health and human rights, should be the main focus.  AI reported that 30 countries have laws supporting the use of the death penalty for drug related offences, with at least 685 executions in 2015.

The outcome adopted by the member states included no criticism of the death penalty, stating only that countries should ensure punishments were ‘proportionate’ with the crimes.


o   19.4.16 – AI called on Mr Cameron to challenge the President, Mr Widodo, on his decision to re-implement the death penalty for drug related offences, and to raise the case of the British woman, Lindsay Sandiford.

o   28.4.16 – The Guardian reports that, a year after the execution of eight people convicted of drug trafficking, there are rumours of preparations for further executions, which could take place in the next few weeks.  Prisoners on death row include two Britons – Lindsay Sandiford and Gareth Cashmore, and a young man – Yusman Telaumbana – believed to have been a minor at the time of the crime, and to have been tortured.  (Note: Indonesia was booed at the United Nations session on drug policy).

Nigeria – 21.4.16 – It was reported in the Nigerian media that prosecutors in Kaduna were seeking the death penalty for members of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN) for the killing of a soldier in the course of two days of violence in December 2012 in the northern city of Zaria.

Urgent Actions

Iran – UA 65/16 – Alireza Pour Olfat was scheduled to be executed on 16.4.16 for a fatal stabbing committed at 16 in the course of a group fight.  His execution was postponed to allow more time for seeking a pardon from the victim’s family.  (Circulated to DPLWG 15.4.16).

Iran New Zealand Amnesty petition – an online petition from Amnesty New Zealand calling on the Iranian Authorities to cease the execution of those who were children at the time of their sentences.(Circulated to DPLWG 27.4.16 and on the website) 


  • Reggie Clemons – we continue to await news 
  • The Group continues to focus on the sentencing to death of juveniles in Iran and to press AI UK for a coordinated action. 
  • This month’s Group Urgent Action – New Zealand petition (see above)

 China remains the country with the highest level of executions – believed to be in the thousands – but the statistics are a state secret.

Thanks to group member Lesley for compiling this report.

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