Lethal injection decree amended

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After the EU refused to sell Vietnam the drugs required to execute prisoners, the government is considering alternative sources, including local manufacture

In this picture taken on August 30, 2011 prisoners from a local prison in the southern province of Binh Phuoc sign papers as they are freed under an amnesty decision. Unable to import the three chemicals listed in the prison manual for capital punishment or execute death-row convicts for almost two years now, the government has amended its decree on lethal injection. PHOTO: AFP

Unable to import the three chemicals listed in the prison manual for capital punishment or execute death-row convicts for almost two years now, the government has amended its decree on lethal injection.

The decree, to take effect on June 27, will no longer mention the barbiturate anesthetic sodium thiopental, muscle relaxant pancuronium bromide, and potassium chloride the chemicals used for lethal injection in many countries.

It will stipulate generally "drugs that make a person lose consciousness, relax the muscles, and stop the heart."

The ministries of Health, Public Security, and National Defense will identify the chemicals required and their quantities.

The decree does not stipulate whether the drugs will be imported or bought locally.

A source from the Drug Administration of Vietnam, who wished to remain unnamed, told Vietweek that the ministry would identify the manufacturer and when the chemicals would be available.

"We are [also] waiting for more detailed instructions from relevant ministries for implementing the decree," the official said.

The Ministry of Public Security refused to comment on the issue. The other aspects of the execution manual remain the same.

During executions, the execution council must ensure the anesthetic has knocked out the convict; if it has not, more anesthetic has to be injected before continuing with the other two chemicals.

Vietnam shifted from the firing squad to lethal injection with the passage of the Law on Execution of Criminal Judgments that took effect on November 1, 2011.

But it has not been implemented even once since the chemicals have not been available, leaving more than 530 prisoners on death row.

Minister of Justice Ha Hung Cuong said recently that almost everything else has been completed, like facilities and staff training.

Five facilities have been built for the executions - in Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, Son La, Nghe An, and Dak Lak.

The Ministry of Public Security has trained police officers in all 63 cities and provinces to carry out the lethal injection process.

The earlier decree stipulated that the drugs would be imported from the European Union (EU). But the EU, which does not have capital punishment, has banned the sale of these drugs to countries that still have the death penalty.

News website VnExpress recently reported that many prisoners are demanding that their death sentence be carried out at once because of the terrible pressure of waiting on death row.

Tuan, a death-row prisoner at Nghi Kim Prison in Nghe An said he is not afraid of death, only the wait for it to come.

"To die? Boom, and it's done," he was quoted by the news site as saying.

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"But I can't sleep a single night in prison. It's terrible to hear the footsteps and the sound of the cell lock being opened. The sooner [the execution] the better."

Three death-row prisoners have committed suicide since November 2011 due to the intolerable pressure.

In Vietnam, prisoners are not informed in advance about the date of execution.

In January, Minister of Public Security Tran Dai Quang said the decree on lethal injection should be amended to allow the use of locally made chemicals.

Fewer crimes get death

In 2009 Vietnam scrapped the death sentence for rape, bribery, counterfeiting of money and bonds, hijacking of ships and aircraft, vandalizing weapons and military equipment, "organized" use of drugs, and misappropriation of property by swindling.

Earlier, in 1999, Vietnam had reduced the number of capital crimes to 22.

Vietnam was among only 21 countries in the world to carry out executions in 2012, according to Amnesty International.

Instead of looking for new sources of lethal drugs, experts say Vietnam should delay and gradually abolish the death sentence.

Janice Beanland, Amnesty International's campaigner for Vietnam, said: "We urge the government to seize this opportunity, when the EU export ban has led to an involuntary halt in executions, to instead impose a moratorium with a view to eventually abolish[ing] the death penalty."

Beanland said that the global trend is moving away from the use of the death penalty, with the vast majority of the world's governments recognizing that it has no deterrent effect. 

"Ninety seven countries have completely abolished the death penalty in law, while 140 in total are abolitionist in practice. Only 21 countries carried out executions in 2012, down from 28 a decade ago."

John Donohue, a professor of law at the Stanford Law School in the US who has studied the issue extensively, said there is no evidence the death penalty is a deterrent to crimes.

"Hong Kong experienced a drop in murder rates in the years after abolition [of death penalty] and with good policing, I predict Vietnam could enjoy a similar improvement. Well trained police are a better way to deter crime."

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