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At least four countries executed people for drug-related crimes in 2017, study finds

President Trump speaks during the White House Opioid Summit on March 1. (Evan Vucci/AP)

At least four countries executed people for drug-related offenses in 2017, according to an annual report by Amnesty International — pursuing a policy that President Trump has noted as a possibility for the United States.

The countries known to have executed people for drug-related crimes are China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Singapore. Amnesty's report states it is also possible that Vietnam and Malaysia executed people for drugs offenses, but it was unable to confirm that.

Because of secrecy about how laws are enforced in a number of countries, the exact number of people executed for drug-related crimes globally remains unclear.

Overall, Amnesty recorded at least 993 executions in 23 countries last year — a figure that marked a drop from 2016, when there were 1,032 executions, though the group says both are dramatic underestimates of the real totals. There was also a significant drop in the number of recorded death sentences in 2017, the humanitarian group found, which was down to 2,591 in 53 countries.

There was a continuing trend in countries in sub-Saharan Africa to abolish the death penalty, the report noted.

“Now that 20 countries in sub-Saharan Africa have abolished the death penalty for all crimes, it is high time that the rest of the world follows their lead and consigns this abhorrent punishment to the history books,” said Amnesty International Secretary General Salil Shetty.

Shetty said the continued use of the death penalty for drug-related crimes in some countries was troubling.

“Despite strides towards abolishing this abhorrent punishment, there are still a few leaders who would resort to the death penalty as a ‘quick-fix’ rather than tackling problems at their roots with humane, effective and evidence-based policies. Strong leaders execute justice, not people,” Shetty said. “The draconian anti-drug measures widely used in the Middle East and Asia-Pacific have totally failed to address the issue.”

Iran had the largest number of executions for drug-related offenses in 2017, with 205 known executions, a considerable drop from two years ago, when it had at least 571. The second-highest known number of executions for drug-related offenses was in Saudi Arabia, where 59 took place. Some 40 percent of executions in Saudi Arabia last year were drug-related, Amnesty found.

Amnesty could not confirm the number of executions for drug-related crimes in China last year, as the country treats the information as a state secret. However, the organization has said it believes thousands of executions for various crimes took place last year in the country.

At least eight people were executed in Singapore last year for drug-related crimes, the highest number since Amnesty began collecting figures on this trend in 2013. The country did not execute anyone for a non-drug related crime in 2017.

The Trump administration has singled out Singapore's tough policies on drugs as one potentially in line with the president's goals. Singaporean representatives have given White House officials briefings on these policies, The Washington Post reported last month.

“Some countries have a very tough penalty, the ultimate penalty, and they have much less of a drug problem than we do,” Trump said during an appearance at a White House summit on opioids in early March.

Trump is also reported to have praised Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte for his tough stance on the drug trade, telling Duterte last year that he was doing an “unbelievable job on the drug problem,” according to the New York Times.

Officially, the Philippines does not allow the death penalty for any crime. However, under the leadership of Duterte, the country has been engaged in a “drug war” that has led to the deaths of thousands of people in extrajudicial police killings, and there are efforts in the country's legislature to reinstate the death penalty.

At least 15 countries imposed or implemented the death penalty for drug-related crimes last year. In at least four of the countries, a death sentence was imposed because it was the mandatory punishment for the crime.

The United States was the only country in the Americas to carry out executions in 2017. Twenty-three people were executed in the country over the year, an increase from 2016 but historically low for the United States. In terms of total executions carried out, the United States dropped from seventh place overall in the world to eighth place between 2016 and 2017.

It is not clear how many more executions, if any, the United States would conduct on a yearly basis if it pursued a drug policy closer to Singapore's. For reference, the Southeast Asian city-state has a population of 5.6 million and executed eight people for drug-related offenses last year. The United States has a population of about 325.7 million.

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