Grandmother Lindsay Sandiford's cocaine sentence: Executing drug mules isn't just inhumane. It’s also pointless

Drug mules are sentenced as if they were drug barons - it's not right, and it won't stop the drugs trude

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Today a judge in Denpassar handed down the death penalty to British Citizen Lindsay Sandison.

She was arrested in May with just under five kilos of cocaine. This news came as a shock. The prosecutor sought 15 years: this is a high sentence by international standards but not entirely unexpected. Although the death penalty was a technical possibility, it is rare for the judge to impose a penalty higher than that requested by the prosecutor. Also, it is absolutely clear to me that she was acting as a drugs mule: this is a minor role that she undertook after threats had been made to her son. The death penalty is grossly disproportionate.

Lindsay will sadly join approximately 100 people on death row in Indonesia. Around half of them are sentenced for drug offences. Many of them are foreigners; many of them are sentenced to death but many for dealing. This situation is not unique to Indonesia. According to Harm Reduction International, hundreds of people are executed worldwide for drug offences every year. In Iran alone, over 10,000 men and women have been executed for drugs offences since 1979 (figures from Harm Reduction International). The true figure of the number of people executed in the name of fighting the drug war is unknown: many nations do not make such information public (notably China and Vietnam). Whilst it is often assumed that the death penalty is reserved for the most serious, violent offenders the sad reality is that a significant portion of those who have received the death penalty worldwide have been drug offenders: some of them may have been ‘king pins’ but the overwhelming majority will have been users, dealers and mules.

Opposition to the death penalty is often made on humanitarian grounds. The United Nations strongly opposes the death penalty. In 2010, they stated:

‘UNODC advocates the abolition of the death penalty and calls upon Member States to follow international standards concerning prohibition of the death penalty for offences of a drug-related or purely economic nature.’

The United Nations assert that the death penalty contravenes the right to life. The UK government also strongly oppose the death penalty.

‘All well and good’, I hear you say. ‘But something must be done to stem the flow of drugs and the damage they cause to communities and families’. My response to this is that the issue of availability of drugs and is a really complex one. In fact, many researchers agree that harsh penalties ensure high prices and large profit margins. We could argue about this for days. What is clear thought is that the death penalty has little effect on the availability of drugs or the harms done to communities.

There is no evidence to suggest that harsh drug laws have any impact on the availability of drugs, in Indonesia or elsewhere. The fact that half of the death row population in Indonesia are drug offenders clearly demonstrates that.  

The death penalty is also not an especially efficient deterrent. Mules are often misinformed about where they were going, or last minute changes to the destination were made. If a mule wanted to back out then they would be asked to pay for their airplane ticket. Given that many of them were involved due to financial crises and debts, none of them could afford to. This is just one example of the way that recruiters seek to control mules – even those who participate willingly. Control, and subtle forms of coercion were endemic to the way the business is run.

Most of those arrested at international borders will probably be couriers. They will all have different reasons for getting involved, but most will be motivated by poverty and financial crises. Some will be coerced or threatened. Executing them has little long-term impact. The people who sent them – the people who buy and sell the drugs (call them king pins if you must) – won’t be affected. They will lose a quantity of drugs, some money and maybe even some sleep. But the trade will continue.

Dr Jennifer Fleetwood is a Lecturer in Criminology at the University of Kent. She is currently writing a book on women in the international cocaine trade.

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