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Branson leads call for inquiry into Home Office ‘aid for executions’

Sir Richard Branson
Sir Richard Branson
High profile public figures including Sir Richard Branson and Lord Macdonald QC, the former director of public prosecutions, have called for an urgent inquiry into the UK’s role in anti-narcotics operations that could help fund executions in countries such as Pakistan.

In a letter to Keith Vaz, chair of the home affairs select committee, the 37 signatories ask him to launch an inquiry into Home Office support for counter-narcotics activities in countries like Pakistan, which actively pursue the death penalty for drug offences. The UK is Europe’s largest funder of foreign counter-narcotics programmes, and has given at least £13m to the operations in Pakistan alone.

The need for an inquiry is urgent, they say, in light of a global resurgence in the use of the death penalty for drug offences. A number of states, such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, are executing more people for drug-related crimes than ever before; others, such as Oman, are re-introducing the death penalty for drugs offences; or resuming executions, such as Indonesia and Pakistan. Pakistan has hanged over 200 people since ending its moratorium on the death penalty in December 2014, surpassing Saudi Arabia and the US in its rate of executions. A number of British nationals are among those who have received death sentences for drugs offences in Pakistan.

The letter says: “As the Department charged with developing and implementing the UK’s overseas drug policy, the Home Office has a responsibility to advance Britain’s strict opposition to the death penalty and other human rights abuses, including fair trial violations and the use of torture. Unfortunately, it appears that the Home Office is in fact compromising the UK’s strong stance on these issues by enabling the execution of drug offenders.”

Signatories to the letter include Sir Richard Branson, Lord Ken Macdonald QC, Human Rights Watch, Fair Trials International, Harm Reduction International, Sir David Nutt – former Chair of the Government’s Advisory Council on Drugs, Mike Trace – former Deputy UK Drug Tsar, Alistair Carmichael – former Scotland Secretary, Clive Stafford Smith – the founder of Reprieve, and a range of MPs, Lords, and senior law enforcement officials. The letter follows a similar recent call for an inquiry by Ann Clwyd MP, chair of the human rights group of MPs, and Lady Stern, co-chair of the MPs’ group on the abolition of the death penalty.

Keith Vaz MP has given no response to the letter, but responded to media enquiries with a statement noting that “we cannot, under any circumstances, fund or enforce the death penalty. That is a red line. The committee will consider whether to examine this matter as part of our upcoming inquiry into drugs when it next meets”.

Commenting, Maya Foa, head of the death penalty team at Reprieve, said: “The British public deserves to know whether its money is being used to enable hundreds, if not thousands, of death sentences and executions. The time has come for the Home Office to stop stonewalling parliament and the public, and come clean about its support for overseas raids which send drug mules to death row.”

Source: Reprieve, August 10, 2015

We May Have Abolished the Death Penalty Here Long Ago, Yet We Remain Involved in Its Continuing Use Worldwide

To mark 100 days of the 1st Conservative government in nearly 20 years, HuffPost UK is running 100 Days of Dave, a special series of blog posts from grassroots campaigners to government ministers, single parents to 1st-year students, reflecting on what's worked and what hasn't, whilst looking for solutions to the problems we still face.

Earlier this month, 4 August, Pakistan hanged Shafqat Hussain, who was sentenced to death while he was still a child. Depressingly, this is not an isolated event. In June, Aftab Bahadur went to the gallows, even though he was just 15 when he was convicted. And in May, Faisal Mehmood was executed - even though the prosecutor in his case had argued against a death sentence as he was underage.

This might seem like an issue that is very distant from the human rights record of the British government. Yet it comes at a time when the Foreign Office has quietly scrapped its death penalty strategy; when the Home Office continues to support the efforts of Pakistan and other countries to send people to the hangman's noose; and while an unknown number of British citizens continue to languish in death row cells in Pakistan and around the world.

The government's widely-praised strategy for ending the death penalty had been in place since 2010, and the timing of the decision to scrap it is deeply unfortunate. Around the world - with a few happy exceptions, notably the US - the death penalty is seeing a resurgence: at the time of writing, Pakistan had executed over 200 people so far this year, while both Saudi Arabia - now at 110 - and Iran are set to exceed the substantial totals they reached in 2014. China hides its death penalty behind a wall of secrecy, but the numbers of victims each year are thought to be in the thousands. Egypt continues to sentence people to death by the hundreds in appalling mass-trials.

At the same time as dropping the strategy, the FCO admitted that it would be scrapping the term 'human rights countries of concern' - a label which had previously caused annoyance to countries such as China, Iran, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.

The depressing conclusion is that the government made these changes in order to have a quieter life when it came to human rights issues. Ministers were often questioned by MPs and others on how Saudi Arabia, for example, could be both a human rights country of concern - according to the FCO - and a priority market for British weapons - according to the Department for Business.

Similarly, a loosening of the government's obligations on the death penalty and human rights may make it easier - and less embarrassing - for the Home Office to continue with policies which contribute to the death penalty overseas. This is the result of an ill-thought-out counter-narcotics strategy, which sees millions of pounds of UK public money lavished on security forces in countries such as Pakistan - funding which then helps send non-violent, alleged drug offenders to the hangman's noose.

In short, a lack of safeguards on who we are prepared to fund, and on what conditions, means that UK cash is contributing to hangings overseas. The victims of those executions are, at worst, exploited drug mules. But all too often, due to the fondness of the police in Pakistan for extracting confessions through torture, they are likely innocent.

To add insult to injury, among those victims are a number of British citizens. It is hard to say how many - Pakistan's government has said five Britons are on death row for drugs offences, while the UK has said it is aware of none, and is disturbingly incurious about the discrepancy. Britain is now in the crazy position of having one department - the Home Office - helping sentence its citizens to death, while another - the FCO - tries with varying success to stop them from being executed. Joined-up government it is not.

These are knotty problems, but as so often a bit more openness would help us towards a solution. Yet, while the prime minister is fond of the cliché that "sunlight is the best disinfectant", his government appears to be heading in the opposite direction.

The Home Office is so tight-lipped about its counter-narcotics programmes that Reprieve is having to fight a court case to extract the most minimal information about what measures it takes on human rights abuses - possibly because they know that such measures are inadequate to the point of being non-existent. Meanwhile, a renewed push against Freedom of Information - a cause which all too often is favoured by the government of the day, whatever its stripe - is taking place.

But no amount of censorship can conceal the fundamental point: that while we may have abolished the death penalty in this country long ago, we remain involved in its continuing use around the world - and therefore responsible for doing what we can to bring it to an end. As a start, we need to see the Home Office open up a bit more - and the FCO think again about whether the best way to react to the abuses of our allies it to tip-toe around them.

Source: Huffington Post, Clare Algar, August 10, 2015. Clare Algar is the executive director of Reprieve

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