EU stems flow of execution drugs to US
However, there are fears that some countries, determined to peddle the lethal drugs, may find a way round the controls.
American executioners have tried hanging, electrocution and, most recently, a drug used to euthanize animals to carry out death sentences.
But now American jails will find it much harder to kill prisoners on death row.
The main supply line for its lethal injections has been cut off after the EU slapped new restrictions on drug exports.
Human rights groups say this will make a big difference.
“I really think this will make a difference and we will see the effect of this in the coming months,” says Sophie Walker from the anti-capital punishment group, Reprieve. “The US relies on European drugs for use in executions, and without them, they are going to be stuck and lives will be saved.”
Specific execution drugs aren’t made in the EU, but several American states have been importing sedatives instead. In a cruel irony, drugs designed to help are being used to hurt.
Exports of drugs like sodium thiopental will now be controlled to stop their use in a three-part lethal cocktail.
The anaesthetic is used to put condemned inmates to sleep, as another drug paralyzes, before the final heart-stopper.
Without the initial numbing stage, lethal injections are unconstitutional under US law.
The usual supply of these drugs has been dwindling since last year when the only US manufacturer ceased production. However, American prisons found an alternative source in Britain’s Dream Pharma Company. The firm, which shares a building with an unassuming driving school in West London, has been exporting British drugs to US prisons to kill people.
The UK government soon found out and banned the exports, so American prisons searched elsewhere.
RT reported in May on how some US states had begun using pentobarbital, a drug normally used to put pets to sleep and which was never intended for human executions.
Its primary use for humans is to treat epilepsy but it has no painkilling properties.
Many felt its use on death row was tantamount to torture. That’s also the view of Mia Fao of Reprieve.
“This can cause excruciating pain if something goes wrong. And because there have been no tests, we cannot guarantee that nothing will go wrong. So there is a risk of not just killing but torturing [the condemned] to death,” she explains.
And Richard Dieter, Executive Director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, agrees.
“It could be that it [the painkiller] is not working and the second and third drugs are very painful, but because they paralyze the inmate, no one knows – you can’t tell, as they have no reaction,” he says.
Following our previous report, the Danish manufacturer Lundbeck imposed its own restrictions to prevent pentobarbital’s misuse.
The new EU embargo covers eight barbiturates in total, including pentobarbital.
US stockpiles will eventually run dry, but many fear it is only a matter of time before prisons try again with something else.
“Unfortunately, the death merchants in the US can sometimes be creative in terms of what they put to use in order to put people to death,” says British MEP Sarah Ludford. “What we need is a catch-all restriction. If other drugs should appear on the market and we discover that the US is misusing those, we can have a quick procedure to add those to the list without waiting another year,” she suggests.
Aside from lethal injection, other methods like hanging and firing squad are still sanctioned but are now rarely used.
These new restrictions may not choke off the drug supply completely but they will certainly tighten the noose on America’s controversial death penalty.