Execution on hold as firm demands return of lethal drug

The execution of an American white supremacist convicted of murder in Nebraska has been put on hold, because of a dispute as to whether one of the Indian-produced drugs that will be used to administer death has been legally obtained.

The manufacturer of a batch of sodium thiopental, one of three substances that make up the lethal "cocktail", claims the drug had been intended for use as an anaesthetic in hospitals in Africa.

The company said that without its knowledge, a pharmaceutical salesman instead sold the substance to the prison authorities in Nebraska, where the execution is due to take place.

In a letter to the state's Supreme Court, asking that the drugs be returned, Prithi Kochhar, CEO of Naari, an Indian-Swiss pharmaceutical company, said he was "shocked and appalled". "Naari did not supply these medicines directly to the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services (NDCS) and is deeply opposed to the use of the medicines in executions," he added.

Amid the controversy, Nebraska's Supreme Court ordered a stay on the execution of Michael Ryan, a former cult leader who was sentenced to death for two murders committed in 1985.

The Kolkata-based salesman who sold the drugs to the NDCS, Chris Harris, said he obtained the substance legally from Naari. He forwarded copies of cheques and emails that he has sent to Nebraska that appeared to show a payment to a company he said was a subsidiary of Naari. "I'm not doing anything illegal," he said.

Both Naari and its purported subsidiary, Jagsonpal Pharmaceuticals, which has its headquarters in Delhi, failed to respond to repeated requests for comment.

Ryan's execution had been scheduled to take place yesterday, but has been put on hold following appeals from his lawyer, Jerry Soucie. Mr Soucie said: "[The legality of the drugs] is an important issue."

Maya Foa, a campaigner with the UK group Reprieve, said the case highlighted how states in the US were looking elsewhere to obtain sodium thiopental for executions because domestic manufacturers were no longer keen to produce it.

Dawn-Renee Smith, a spokeswoman for the NDCS, said that officials had been in touch with Mr Harris to determine how he obtained the drug. She said: "From our perspective, we obtained that legally."

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