President Trump spoke fondly again on Friday about the practice — popular among some anti-Democratic leaders — of executing drug traffickers.
Speaking at the White House to announce that he was declaring a national emergency to secure funding to build his long-promised border wall, Trump digressed to speak about a recent conversation he had with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
“Their criminal list — a drug dealer gets a thing called the death penalty,” he said of China. “Our criminal list a drug dealer gets a thing called: How about a fine?”
Trump continued: “When I asked President Xi, I said, ‘You have a drug problem?’ No no no.” I said, ‘You have 1.4 billion people, what do you mean you have no drug problem?’ No we don’t have a drug problem. I said, ‘Why?’ Death penalty,” Trump said, imitating someone who speaks broken English. “We give death penalty to people who sell drugs. End of problem.”
Trump has repeatedly praised authoritarian leaders around the world and shown a particular affinity for the punitive measures some have used against drug traffickers and users.
Last winter, he told an audience in Pennsylvania that discussions about instituting the death penalty for drug dealers was “a discussion we have to start thinking about,” again saying he got the idea from Xi. Trump previously suggested the death penalty was a way to fight the opioid epidemic.
Human rights experts said Trump’s regular praise for Xi is concerning and misleading.
“Not only do they execute people without due process, they run a dictatorship that’s getting tighter and tighter by the day,” said Brad Adams, the Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Activists and civil libertarians are being routinely put in prison.”
While Trump claimed he was told that China does not have a drug problem, that does not appear to be the case. According to China Daily, a state-run newspaper, police in China solved “140,000 criminal cases related to drugs in 2016, arrested 168,000 suspected drug users, seized 82.1 tons of drugs and destroyed 438 drug labs.” And the outlet noted that there were 2.5 million known drug addicts in China by the end of 2017.
“It’s very common in economies with large growth rates, particularly countries moving away from abject poverty,” Adams said.
Adams said that China does execute people in some cases for drug trafficking, distribution and manufacturing but that its legal processes would not pass muster in the United States.
“There’s no due process,” he said, saying trials were closed. “Everything about every death penalty case in China would fail the tests we have here for a fair trial.”
In January, a Canadian man, Robert Lloyd Schellenberg, who was found guilty of drug trafficking in China, was sentenced to death in a case that Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said was politically motivated.
Malaysia and Singapore have long had automatic penalties for drug traffickers, Adams said. But he said there was no firm evidence that harsh measures like execution had any deterrent effect.
“So from every angle, Trump is just wrong, and it’s just really shocking to see him praise the use of the death penalty in a country that has no respect for the presumption of innocence, access to lawyers, or a fair trial,” he said.
Kristina Roth, a senior program officer for criminal justice at Amnesty International USA, agreed.
“Generally speaking, use of the death penalty for drug-related crimes or any other crimes is not effective,” she said. “I think that if they were truly dedicated to addressing a serious amount of drug-related deaths, they’d seek public health solutions rather than executing people.”
Lindsey Bever contributed to this report.