British government changes tune; issues immediate ban on the export of lethal injection drugs from Britain for American executions

November 29, 2010

After resisting Reprieve’s efforts to secure a ban on the export of Sodium Thiopental to the US for execution purposes for a month, today Vince Cable, Secretary of State for Business Innovation and Skills, agreed to impose such an order.

Originally, Cable refused to act for two reasons: the suggestion that if Britain did not provide the drugs someone else would, and the notion that sodium thiopental was exported to the US for medical purposes.

The first reason was unworthy of a response – if something is immoral, it does not matter that someone else will commit the offence. Reprieve and Leigh Day proved that no sodium thiopental was imported from Europe to the US for any medicinal use, and that it would be illegal to do so under the regulations promulgated by the US Food & Drug Administration (FDA).

To their credit, Archimedes Pharma, which may unwittingly have been the source of the drugs used to execute prisoners, did not oppose the ban. Furthermore, the pharmaceutical company actively supported the effort to prove that the drugs were not legitimately imported into the US.

Reprieve Director, Clive Stafford Smith said:

“All politicians should be congratulated when they admit a mistake, and it is a credit to Vince Cable that he has backed down. However, there is urgent work to do. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation – so named, notwithstanding their plan to execute a number of prisoners – expects to receive enough drugs to kill 86 people this week, perhaps as early as today, probably again from Britain. The British government must take active and urgent steps to prevent this from happening, and to make up for the delay in imposing a ban.”

“Let me congratulate Archimedes Pharma for doing the right thing as well. This should be a lesson to other companies that purport to be ethical – words are not enough. You have to take action.”

Jamie Beagent of Leigh Day & Co said:

“We are pleased that the Secretary of State has finally come to recognise that banning the export of drugs from the UK for use in executions overseas is the morally right thing to do. His decision to add sodium thiopental to the list of goods whose export from the UK is controlled is to be welcomed. It is only a shame that it necessitated legal proceedings to bring him to this conclusion.”


The US has run short of Sodium Thiopental, one of the drugs used in the execution protocol. On Monday, October 25th, Jeffery Landrigan was executed in Arizona using drugs supplied by a British company, despite a plea for clemency from the judge who sentenced him to death. The Arizona consignment was sufficient for four executions, so the drugs sourced in Britain will contribute to three more deaths.

The following week the American lawyers for Edmund Zagorski contacted Reprieve with a plea for help: Tennessee was seeking to purchase the drugs to kill Mr. Zagorski, apparently from the same British company.

On Thursday, October 28th, Reprieve and Leigh Day contacted the Government and asked for emergency measures to be taken to avoid British complicity in Mr Zagorski’s execution.

On Monday, November 1st, Mr. Cable responded that the British government would take no such step, relying primarily on his belief that Sodium Thiopental had medicinal uses in the US.

On Tuesday, November 2nd, therefore, Leigh Day filed a judicial review. The Government opposed an immediate and temporary export ban although to their credit the main pharmaceutical company involved, Archimedes Pharma, did not. No such order was interposed, in part because the Tennessee authorities had represented that they would secure the drugs on November 25th at the earliest. It transpired that the Tennesee authorities had deceived everyone, and had already received the drugs on October 26th. The source remains secret to date, but may well have been the UK.

Ed Zagorski is scheduled to die on January 11th, 2011. He has been on death row in Tennessee for almost 27 years, and he has been a model prisoner. He protests his innocence, and an independent assessment from Physicans for Human Rights concluded that he had been “tortured” into implicating himself.

The original trial prosecutor offered a life sentence, with eligibility for parole – evincing a clear view that the death penalty was not a necessary punishment. Meanwhile, other desperate states sought sodium thiopental from abroad. California expects to receive enough to kill 86 prisoners this week. Oklahoma is trying to use phenobarbitol, the drug used to kill animals, at an alternative.

For more information please contact Jamie Beagent of Leigh Day & Co on 020 7650 1200.

Notes for Editors:


Reprieve, a legal action charity, uses the law to enforce the human rights of prisoners, from death row to Guantánamo Bay. Reprieve investigates, litigates and educates, working on the frontline, to provide legal support to prisoners unable to pay for it themselves.

Reprieve promotes the rule of law around the world, securing each person’s right to a fair trial and saving lives. Clive Stafford Smith is the founder of Reprieve and has spent 25 years working on behalf of people facing the death penalty in the USA.

Reprieve has represented, and continues to represent, a large number of prisoners who have been rendered and abused around the world, and is conducting ongoing investigations into the rendition and the secret detention of ‘ghost prisoners’ in the so-called ‘war on terror.’

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