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Capital punishment

Loopholes persist amid lethal drug export bans

2015 wurden alle 28 Hinrichtungen in den Vereinigten Staaten durch eine tödliche Injektion vollzogen. (Keystone)

2015 wurden alle 28 Hinrichtungen in den Vereinigten Staaten durch eine tödliche Injektion vollzogen.


The Pfizer pharmaceutical company recently became the latest to say it won’t send drugs to the US used in administering the death penalty, and a Swiss law is set to follow suit. But how effective are such bans?

Morals trumped profits when Pfizer announced on May 13 that it would strictly monitor its drug shipments to make sure none are used for capital punishment in the United States.

“Pfizer makes products to protect and improve the lives of its patients,” the company said in a statement. “To conform with those values, Pfizer is strongly against the use of its products in lethal injections meant to carry out the death penalty.”

According to the Tages-Anzeiger newspaper, nearly two dozen pharmaceutical companies have announced similar policies in the last five years. Swiss drug makers Novartis and Roche had produced painkillers and sedatives used in the lethal drug cocktail but eventually joined the movement against the death penalty, stopping shipments of the drugs to the 32 US states that use capital punishment.

Swiss law forbids the export of drugs that could be used for illegal purposes in the country they are headed to. But no law currently exists governing the export of drugs to countries where the death penalty is legal.

But that could soon change, thanks to a law proposed to the Swiss government by parliament that would bring Switzerland’s legislation in line with the European Union’s.

The law’s text goes back to a motion filed by parliamentarian Barbara Schmid-Federer of the centre-right Christian Democratic Party which forbids “the export or trade of drugs if it can be assumed that they will be used for the purpose of capital punishment”.

Because the affected drugs such as barbiturates can also be used for medical purposes, the Swiss regulator of therapeutic products Swissmedic “should check whether the medications will be used for capital punishment before issuing an export permit,” according to the proposed legislation.

The government’s revised law on prescription drugs and medication will not come into effect before spring 2017, according to the Federal Department of Health. Although she is pleased that her legislation will likely be included, Schmid-Federer says it “doesn’t solve every problem”, since it doesn’t exclude the possibility that lethal drugs could still be used to administer the death penalty through intermediaries.

That’s how, for example, the Novartis affiliate Sandoz sent the barbiturate Thiopental to the United States in 2011. And in the same year, the Basel-based pharmaceutical company Naari sent the same drug to the US via an Indian intermediary. Both companies had pledged that its drugs would never be used to administer capital punishment.

According to Amnesty International, all death sentences carried out in the US in 2015 were performed using lethal injections. Last year, at least 1,634 people died as a result of capital punishment worldwide, one-third more than in 2014. 

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