Maya Foa speaks to Julia Farrington from a lawyers office in Washington DC about her work as Director of Death Penalty Programmes at Reprieve and author of SLIP (Stop Lethal Injection Project) campaign.
JF: The UK government has recently revised its global human rights priorities, dropping any explicit reference to its longstanding commitment to abolish the death penalty – why have they done that?
MF: They have revised their human rights obligations in theory to promote trade; to rid themselves of the constraints that a concern for human rights places on a government anywhere in the world. The Tory government can quietly do away with human rights concerns because they are working on the assumption that the British people don’t care, or because they believe their rhetoric can convince them they don’t care.
The death penalty is a hassle for the Government. It means that Reprieve will say: “Hang on, you are sending vast quantities of money, assistance and intelligence to Pakistan and Iran to catch so called drug traffickers. At the same time Iran has executed 600 people for drug offences over the past 10 months alone. So, British Government, how can you square an anti-death penalty position with the fact that people are being executed thanks to your aid money?“
Abandoning the explicit rhetoric around promoting abolition of the death penalty globally makes it easier for them to do their dodgy deals with Saudi Arabia or Iran or wherever else. They are no longer accountable to NGOs like Reprieve, or the British people who actually are concerned by this.
JF: Recently your work has taken you to Pakistan. Can you talk about the situation there?
MF: Pakistan resumed executions at the end of the last year having not executed anybody for a number of years and they have started up again with a vengeance. Ostensibly, the reason they resumed executions in December last year was because of the terrorist attack on the school in Peshawar. It was a terrible attack and lots of children were killed.
So the government makes it clear that they are resuming executions to fight terrorism. We know that the “fight against terrorism” [Maya gestures the quotation marks] is something that is approved by the international community. So even if UK is anti-death penalty, because Pakistan is executing prisoners to fight terrorism, they think they have got cover. And, to the people it sounds like a strong Government statement.
The first couple of months till February 2015, they executed 25 people. We’ve analysed all of the data now and we could link 13 of those executed to proscribed terrorist groups. From March to May, they executed a further 150 people. Going through those cases we found that not a single one was linked to a proscribed terrorist organisation. Further investigation revealed that what had happened in the interim was that the leaders of some of these proscribed groups went to the Pakistani government and said that if they continued to target any of their members “we will come after you, we will come after your family and we will come after your friends.” (as reported here)
So what does the Pakistani government do, put in that unenviable position? They don’t say – “let’s stop executing, this is dangerous, we are in danger, society is in danger, this isn’t the right course of action”. Instead, they execute more people, more quickly. And the people they go for this time are defenceless, people who have no power to fight back, including at least 5 juveniles and many more who were likely juveniles when convicted and had a crime pinned on them.
The Criminal Justice system there is very corrupt and torture is used systemically to extract confessions. A Pakistani judge said to me once that he thinks a good 60 - 70% of the people on death row are probably innocent. This was a judge. There are 8000 people on death row.
It has been a depressing year, but the good thing is that these stories are out. The lies and misinformation that are propagated by the government, saying, “we are protecting you, we are going after terrorists”, need to be exposed. What needs to be shown instead is that those without the capital get the punishment. It is the innocent scapegoats, the vulnerable victims, who get cast over to the gallows.
The death penalty is used all over the world as a cheap, easy, political fix. As I see it our job at Reprieve is to turn that around and instead make it an expensive and difficult political nightmare; which is why we campaign to cut off the supply of drugs; which is why we help get the stories out in the NYT about the Pakistani executions; which is why we harass the British government to withdraw a bid to contract with the Saudi Arabians when they are planning to crucify a 17 year old for attending a protest, telling his friends to join him and administering first aid to those injured in the demonstration.
JF: Stop the Lethal Inject Project at Reprieve has successfully focused on pharmaceutical companies to cut supply of medicinal drugs that were being used in executions. In doing that the project has brought lethal injections as a humane form of execution into question and in some States led to the suspension of executions altogether. It has been extraordinarily successful project – tell me about that side of your work.
MF: The lethal injection has always had this mythic quality of being humane way to execute which it simply isn’t.
A guy called Clayton Locket. So they were executing him and they tried both wrists and both ankles and they couldn’t get a vein and then they went to his neck. Eventually they went to his groin. By his point they had punctured him 27 times. And they have injected all of the drugs now and the guy doesn’t die. 40 minutes in and he is writhing on the gurney, a big guy, they don’t know what to do. They see there is this big bubble of flesh because they haven’t injected into the vein at all but injected into the flesh around the vein, so he is suffering enormously. They call the Governor who is at a baseball game and she says “stop the execution”. From the report afterwards it emerges the people conducting the execution don’t know if it means stop the execution meaning kill him – or stop it to save his life. What’s more they can’t do either. They don’t know how to save him and they have used up all their drugs so they don’t know how to kill him. Eventually he dies of a heart attack behind the curtain a good hour into the execution; they had tortured a man to death.
I think this idea about lethal inject being humane is why death penalty has been sustained so long in the States. People have been immured to it, this clinical veil has been pulled over it so we don’t have to contemplate what it means to put another human being to death. If they move to the firing squad or the electric chair, which they don’t want to do, you are going to see states abolishing the death penalty; they know the public won’t want to stomach it.
My involvement started in 2010 when, because of manufacturing troubles in the US, certain US states started importing drugs from an unknown supplier based in the UK. An intern for Reprieve at the time, I investigated this and discovered a guy, called Matt Alavi, who was operating out of the back room of a driving school in Acton, West London, selling execution drugs to states across the US. This lead to unearthing the connection between the trafficked drugs and the damage they did, because they were linked to a number of botched executions. So I began looking at ways to cut off the supplies, working with pharmaceutical companies in UK, Europe and US.
JF: What are you doing in the States at the moment?
MF: I am having an extremely geekily good time talking to pharmaceutical companies, at a moment when the number of executions is the lowest in 25 years; the first time executions have been under 30 in decades. Right now only three states are actively able to execute in large part because many, many of the others including the most aggressive death penalty states, (including Ohio, Oklahoma, Texas, Florida) have been caught in lethal injection litigation or an inability to procure the drugs. Some states have a moratorium; some have abolition bills on the table‘ some states are saying let’s move to a different method of execution. In the five years I have been working on it, the discourse about the death penalty has never been more live.
JF: This is obviously a very rewarding part of your work, but what has been your greatest achievement?
MF: Two moments – I got an email from a lawyer recently and it just said: “Thank you – my client is alive because of you”. And I know that is actually true in certain states. They can’t execute anymore. All those guys are still alive and that gives them more time. Hopefully they won’t ever be executed. Certainly creating that space increases the likelihood that they won’t be given the most cruel punishment that society metes out.
And the other is the moment when I figured out the solution to the distribution control issue [of drugs for lethal injections]. I was sitting at a table with the CEO of pharmaceutical company opposite and the comms guy was saying we can’t do that for all these reasons, and the CEO interrupted and said, yes we could…
JF: You once said to me that as soon as you had abolished the death penalty worldwide you would turn your attention to the injustices faced by paedophiles. Can you say more about that?
MF: In Britain what I find most irrational, where passions are very high, but logic is pretty low, is our attitude to paedophilia, or certain elements of society’s behaviour around paedophilia, which is very similar to what I have seen in Pakistan around blasphemy. There is a kind of mob reaction, a vilification of an idea, or a person who espouses an idea that we as a society have decided is evil. To me that is completely insane. And along with that insanity you have a lot of power and a lot of abuse. Anything to do with children and sex is a trigger for some people to want to bring back the death penalty.
Though I would never condone it, I would like to see a more rational scientific exploration of what is going on. Where there are cases of proven paedophilia very often the perpetrators are found to be people who were abused. They went through years of abuse themselves, and as they become adults they repeat the behaviours that they have known their whole young lives and suddenly become these evil monsters that society wants to kill. There is such cruel illogic in that. I can’t accept that we, as a society, don’t look and see this person as someone who has been abused and try to treat and help them. Instead we damn them and want to hang them.
They say you can judge a society by the way it treats its prisoners. You can equally judge a society by its attitudes towards the idea of the criminal. What are we doing when we take a whole set of people who are more likely mad than bad and lock them up and throw away the key. I would certainly work on that, because in years to come we will have done the scientific research and established the range of dysfunction that leads to certain acts and we will have a more rational conversation about it.
That’s why I like working here [in States], because here, amongst a very small group of people, my idea that there shouldn’t been any prisons, is almost a banality: of course there shouldn’t be! There is so much work to be done to un-write some of these doctrines that the forces of authority have used to control people.
JF: Where does your horror of injustice come from?
MF: Abuse of power. I can’t stand abuse of power. I think people who work at the sharp end of criminal justice have a sense of the injustice of the system and the need to fight for people who cannot necessarily fight for themselves.
For many of us I suspect, myself included, there will be personal experiences; things that you are exposed to, that happened to people close to you at a time when you are impressionable. I have seen how society treats the people it chooses to hate and the people who are weakest, and I don’t accept it. I didn’t accept it as a raging 2 year old and I don’t expect I will accept it if I make it to my 80s.
For me the idea that we throw people in prison when so many of them are mentally ill or have been put in situations when they had no choice, is totally unacceptable. The way we judge and the way we damn is only possible when we haven’t interrogated a deeper level of motivation, mitigation or forces of human history, societal impact on individuals or structure of power. I am a fight not flight person and that has always been true.
JF: Do you go in for gallows humour?
MF: There is a huge place for it. Particularly when you can pun with it too – you have to laugh – it is not because it is desperate. The existential aspects of this work are absurd and funny and if you are really dealing with life and death all the time, you are going to find that humour - it is there. It’s just so accessible and I work with people who see it, they look at the world and they laugh at it and they cry about it and then they do something about it. You have to be able to make it light so people can walk with you, whether a pharmaceutical CEO, or a judge, or a friend at the dinner table, so they can open that cell door and all the rest that follows.Subscribe to our mailing list: