"Throughout 2021, executions for drug offences were confirmed to have taken place in Iran (at least 131) and China (at least one, a Chinese woman). In China, state secrecy prevents reporting of accurate figures, however, the country is believed to carry out numerous executions (potentially in the thousands, according to Amnesty International).17 Figures from Iran, collected by the Abdorrahman Boroumand Centre for Human Rights in Iran, show a weighty increase in confirmed drug-related executions, from 25 in 2020 to 131 in 2021 - a 424% rise, against a 28% increase in total executions in the country. Concurrently, executions for drug crimes in Iran represented a higher percentage of total executions than in the previous year: from 10% to 42%, back to pre-amendment levels.18 While the root causes of such a sharp surge are yet to be conclusively identified, this trend confirms experts’ fears that the impact of the 2017 Amendments to the Law for Combating Illicit Drugs may be temporary, and linked, at least to some degree, to political circumstances.

"In addition to China and Iran, it is highly likely that executions were carried out in two more countries characterised by extreme opacity of information: North Korea and Vietnam. Indeed, both countries regularly sentence people to death for drug offences, and both countries are believed to regularly execute individuals. In Vietnam, where dozens of drug-related death sentences are imposed every year, eleven execution centres are currently operational.19 In North Korea, civil society consistently identifies drug offences amongst the main crimes for which individuals are executed, although there are no published records or figures.

"Equally notable are findings on the absence of executions: in 2021, no executions for drug offences were carried out in Saudi Arabia for the fir$ time in at least a decade (although one individual was executed for multiple political crimes, as well as “promotion and use” of illicit substances). This development, due to an ongoing moratorium on drug-related executions in the Kingdom, is significant, especially considering that in 2019, 84 drug-related executions were reported, with more likely to have taken place. At the same time, the moratorium has not yet been formalised, or finalised via law reform, meaning executions may restart at any time. According to civil society organisations such as the European Saudi Organisation for Human Rights,20 death sentences continue to be imposed and people on death row for drug crimes have not undergone retrials or seen their sentences commuted. Absent more substantial reforms, these individuals are still at imminent risk of execution.

"There were no executions for drugs or any other crimes in Indonesia for the fifth consecutive year. There were also no executions in Singapore for the second year in a row; one execution was announced in late 2021, but was later suspended pending judicial review and national as well as international outcry (for more details, see case study, pag. 29). Though the COVID-19 pandemic certainly played a role, the fact that one of the most committed retentionist countries refrained from carrying out executions is significant.

"On 29 December 2021, the Malaysian government announced that the special committee created in 2019 to reflect upon death penalty abolition will soon present its findings to the executive. The same statement also indicated that “the Bill to amend laws on the death penalty, as well as other relevant laws, is expected to be tabled in Parliament by the third quarter of 2022.”21

"With Saudi Arabia and Singapore currently refraining from carrying out drug-related executions, the group of states that actively executes individuals for these non-violent crimes is shrinking, and is more isolated than ever. At the same time, this group is increasingly characterised by secrecy, if not outright censorship, on the use of capital punishment, in clear violation of its human rights obligations. This poses huge challenges to both institutional and civil society actors monitoring and advocating against capital punishment. For the same reason, and absent more details, the total number of drug-related executions in 2021 should be treated as the minimum confirmed figure. The total number is higher, possibly significantly so."


Ajeng Larasati and Giada Girelli, The Death Penalty for Drug Offences: Global Overview 2021," Harm Reduction International, 2022.