In the forthcoming week the United States is poised to make execution history by allowing a prison in Nebraska to use a made-in-India chemical for killing a death-row inmate. That the drug being used, unconsciousness-inducing sodium thiopental, was procured fraudulently from its manufacturer – who is “shocked and appalled” at its proposed use – is an additional twist to this saga of a growing trans-border death-trade.
Unless he is saved by a clemency petition or last-ditch legal recourse, when Michael Ryan, on death row for a double-murder in the 1980s, is strapped into a gurney and injected with lethal chemicals on March 6, he will die knowing that a drug made in the town of Kashipur, Uttarakhand in India probably caused his death.
While Ryan had earlier obtained a stay order on his execution from the Nebraska Supreme Court, that decision was reversed at the end of last week when a County District Judge, Daniel Bryan Jr., rejected his appeal. In doing so the court however did not specifically comment on Ryan’s challenge relating to how Nebraska obtained one of three lethal-injection drugs it has on hand.
Ironically the setback for Ryan will also come as a blow to the proprietors of Naari, a Swiss-Indian pharmaceutical company. Naari has argued, for more than six months now that the 485 grams of sodium thiopental now in the possession of the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services (NDCS) were taken from it under false pretences by a middleman called Chris Harris.
The attempt of Mr. Harris to procure sodium thiopental, proved duplicitous by shipping documents and other paperwork in The Hindu’s possession, come in the wake of a similarly controversial attempt by him obtain the narcotic from a Mumbai-based firm called Kayem Pharmaceuticals.
Yet a U.K.-based anti-death penalty group called Reprieve, which had earlier tracked the NDCS’s efforts to source the drug from a shadowy firm in the United Kingdom, highlighted Mr. Harris’ interactions with Kayem and the intense pressure on the firm led to it stating publicly that it would immediately halt all exports of thiopental to the U.S.
The U.S. prison’s move to seek the drug in U.K. had also met with a storm of opposition across Europe and led to the ban of all such drug exports to the U.S. in that continent. However although the import from Kayem was not approved by U.S. regulators Mr. Harris succeeded in procuring over 500 one-gram vials of thiopental – enough to kill 166 men – for the NDCS.
According to sources, U.S. regulators have conveyed to the NDCS that they do not approve of the use of Kayem’s sodium thiopental in executions given that proper importation procedures were not followed. However Mr. Harris learned a lesson from the ban on Kayem’s drugs and would appear to have followed import guidelines for Naari’s drugs – although as in the case of Kayem the U.S.
Food and Drug Administration has refused to certify the Naari drugs too.
The NDCS no doubt considers this development timely. Along with Georgia, Arizona, Texas and other U.S. states, Nebraska is said to be facing acute shortages of execution drugs since the 2010 voluntary shut-down of a firm called Hospira, the sole producer of sodium thiopental in the U.S. at the time.
Given the regulatory issues impeding the use of foreign-made sodium thiopental numerous correctional facilities in the U.S. are also considering a switch to pentobarbital, a veterinary euthanasia barbiturate used to put down dogs, or using a single-drug execution procedure.
If Nebraska does not switch to some alternative then fate of Naari’s drugs would appear to be written, despite Naari CEO Prithi Kochhar dashing off an anxious letter to Nebraska Supreme Court Chief Justice Michael Heavican, in which he expressed his dismay at by the prospect that Naari’s drugs could thus be used in execution procedures. Going by a response of a judicial official, that letter has been set aside in the consideration of the Ryan case.
Regardless, Mr. Kochhar argued that Naari’s agreement with Mr. Harris was for Mr. Harris to use the vials for registration in Zambia, get the product registered there and then begin selling it there, given that sodium thiopental is used widely as an anaesthetic in the developing world.
Unfortunately the most recent decision condemning Ryan to death will lead to Naari’s drugs being used for an entirely more macabre purpose.