When the Nebraska Supreme Court on Thursday issued a stay of execution in favour of death-row inmate Michael Ryan, it was not just Ryan who breathed a sigh of relief but also the proprietors of a pharmaceutical company in faraway Kashipur in Uttarakhand.
For, had the execution proceeded as per schedule on March 6, Ryan would have been injected with drugs made by the Swiss-Indian company, Naari, which has since last August consistently argued that 485 grams of sodium thiopental, an unconsciousness-inducing drug, was taken from it under false pretences and handed over to the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services (NDCS).
Why is a U.S. prison using execution drugs obtained though allegedly fraudulent means, from India? Lethal injection procedures in this country have, for the last few years, been rocked by the voluntary shutdown of a firm called Hospira, oddly the sole producer of sodium thiopental in the U.S. at the time.
Since that event in 2010, a slew of correctional facilities have continued to seek out alternative suppliers of the drug or switch to pentobarbital, a veterinary euthanasia barbiturate used to put down dogs. After attempts to source sodium thiopental from a firm in the United Kingdom 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, one Mumbai-based firm called Kayem Pharmaceuticals was contacted by an intermediary acting on behalf of the NDCS.
When a U.K.-based anti-death penalty group called Reprieve highlighted the fact that despite not being approved by U.S. regulators, Kayem had handed over 500 one-gram vials of thiopental — enough to kill 166 men — to the middleman named Chris Harris, and then it had passed on to the NDCS, the intense pressure on Kayem led to it stating publicly that it would immediately halt all exports of thiopental to the U.S.
Yet the fate of Naari's drugs remains uncertain, this despite Naari CEO Prithi Kochhar dashing off an anxious letter to Nebraska Supreme Court Chief Justice Michael Heavican, in which he said he was “shocked and appalled” by the prospect that Naari's drugs could thus be used in execution procedures.
Mr. Kochhar went on to explain to the Chief Justice that “the agreement with Mr. Harris was that he would use these vials for registration in Zambia. Our intention was to get the product registered in Zambia and then begin selling it there, since sodium thiopental is used very widely as an anaesthetic in the developing world.”
Mr. Kochhar's hope is that the drugs that he alleges Mr. Harris misappropriated and diverted from their intended purpose would be “returned immediately to its rightful owners, that is, that it be returned to us at Naari.” If his wish is granted, the court would have to deny the right of the thiopental-starved NDCS to inject Ryan with an untested, uncertified chemical.