Vietnam to make lethal drugs on its own

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Growing pressure from lawmakers and the public prompts government to amend laws so it can produce poison needed to execute prisoners


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 granted by the State. Vietnam is all set to produce the the chemicals needed to administer lethal injections by itself. Photo: AFP

For more than 500 prisoners on death row, the wait continues.

Now, it appears as though they will be executed with homegrown poison.

Vietnam is all set to produce the toxins needed to administer lethal injections by itself after an European Union (EU) ban on the sale of such drugs has stalled the executions of 532 inmates.

The latest move comes on the heels of heated debate among lawmakers, several of whom have proposed that Vietnam consider switching back to the firing squad. Analysts say that high public support for death penalty as a criminal deterrent has also played a crucial role in pushing the government to act.

The Ministry of Public Security is currently in touch with agencies concerned to amend a government decree on lethal injections. The amendments would allow Vietnam to produce and use domestic poisons in lethal injections, Minister Tran Dai Quang said at a meeting with the National Assembly on Wednesday (January 23).

But he did not say how the drugs would be made and how long it would take to make them.

"The execution of more than 532 inmates has not been able to go ahead due to the shortage of lethal drugs," Quang was quoted by local media as saying. The Ministry of Public Security has built the facilities, installed the equipment for carrying out lethal injections and trained staff to use it in five cities and provinces, he said.

In July 2011, the National Assembly, Vietnam's legislature, passed a law that said Vietnam will shift from firing squads to lethal injections, as a more "humane" method for both the convicts and the executioners.

But the hitch was that the EU, which bans the death penalty within the bloc, has also prohibited the sale of drugs to countries that want to use them to execute people.

The Vietnamese law should have taken effect last November, but since then the EU ban has given hundreds of death-row prisoners in Vietnam a reprieve of sorts.

The EU says it has no intention of lifting the ban on the drugs including the barbiturate anesthetic Sodium thiopental, muscle relaxant Pancuronium bromide and Potassium chloride.

Death penalty statistics are not available in Vietnam, but the punishment is handed down mostly to those convicted of murder and drug-trafficking.

Vietnam is among 21 countries in the world to carry out executions in 2011, according to Amnesty International. Twenty-eight out of 41 countries in the Asia-Pacific region have abolished the death penalty for all crimes either in practice or in law, the London-based group said.

Vietnam has reduced the number of major crimes attracting the death penalty from 29 in 1999 to 22 four years ago.

"The overwhelming worldwide trend is to move away from using the death penalty," said Janice Beanland, Amnesty International's Campaigner for Vietnam.

"This reflects the growing global recognition that the death penalty is"¦ ineffective - there is no evidence that the threat of execution acts as a special deterrent," Beanland said.

In Vietnam, the debate over the effectiveness of the death penalty in deterring crime has become more voluble in recent years.

At the biannual Fall session of the National Assembly last November, an overwhelming majority of lawmakers said they would not brook further delays in executing death-row inmates. They supported the death penalty as a must to deter crime, and even urged a return to the firing squad.

An online survey by news website VnExpress, also in November, found that around 81 percent of readers supported the domestic production of lethal drugs to execute the prisoners.

But proponents of capital punishment have to face up to reality: the number and intensity of crimes have shown no sign of abating, according to government officials.

Experts in the field do not buy into the link between capital punishment and crime deterrence.

"At least in the United States I have not seen a shred of evidence that would support the claim of deterrence [of capital punishment]," said John Donohue, a professor of law at the Stanford Law School, who has studied the issue extensively.

Donohue also pointed to a study that looked at Hong Kong and Singapore that took sharply divergent paths on the issue in the mid-1990s: Hong Kong abolished and Singapore greatly increased its use of the death  penalty. The murder rates have been nearly identical for the two countries since, as they have always been. 

Despite differences, Vietnamese experts have also concurred that the death penalty, at best, can only be a short-term measure to deal with crime in the country.

They say considerable effort is needed to amend the existing social structure to ensure equal opportunities for everybody.

The rising gap between the haves and the have-nots, with most of the former making their fortune through "mysterious" means, is a fertile ground for resentment among a large section of the population, sociologists say. The resentment is more likely to spill over into crime when times are tough and people find it difficult to find jobs, they add.

The most recent World Bank report on poverty in the country, released Thursday, says things are getting worse.

"Inequality in incomes and opportunities are rising, underpinned by continuing disparities in human development between urban and rural areas and widening disparities within rural areas and across different socioeconomic groups," the report said.

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