Twelve days of government inaction

December 28, 2010

It has been 12 days since Reprieve gave Vince Cable urgent notice that the UK is exporting two additional execution drugs to the US and the Business Secretary has failed to take action; Reprieve now gives him an additional 72 hours to apply an export ban on the drugs or face legal action, and gives the European Commission the 60 day notice required before bringing suit in the European Court of Human Rights to ban export of these execution drugs from anywhere in Europe.

Business Innovation and Skills Secretary Vince Cable was given notice on 16th December that the UK has exported two further execution drugs (in addition to sodium thiopental) to the United States: pancuronium bromide and potassium chloride. Reprieve called on him to impose an immediate export ban. He has taken no action whatsoever. Yesterday evening Reprieve Director Clive Stafford Smith therefore wrote to give him one last chance to identify his intentions or face legal action. He now has 72 hours – until close of business on 30th December – to respond.

Similarly Mr Cable has done nothing in three weeks to prevent a large quantity of British-supplied sodium thiopental from reaching its intended target – the veins of at least 85 prisoners on death row in California. On 6th December, Reprieve informed Cable that the euphemistically titled California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation had ordered 85 doses from Archimedes Pharma, a company based in Reading. The shipment has now left Britain (Archimedes insists that it did not export the drug; it does not deny that it was the original British source, but the sodium thiopental seems to have been exported by an intermediary). The drugs have reportedly not yet been released by the American Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and urgent action by Cable could still prevent its shipment to California.

Meanwhile, Reprieve has called upon various pharmaceutical companies to assist in the task of preventing their drugs from being used to kill people. Thus far, the response has been anaemic – with the sole exception of Hameln, which has taken urgent action to ensure that its drugs would not be used for executions and has helped Reprieve in trying to identify the source. Other companies – including Goldshield and Hospira UK – have not deigned to reply to this urgent request.

Working with the major law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges, on Christmas Eve Reprieve gave notice to the President of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso, that the Commission has the legal sixty days in which to impose an EU-wide ban on the export of the three drugs, or face litigation in the European Court of Human Rights to override the bureaucratic indifference that the Commission has shown to date.

Death rows across America are now sharing their dwindling stocks of execution drugs, so a successful import of 85 doses to California may be used to kill prisoners in other states. One prisoner, Jeffrey Landrigan, has already been killed by British drugs in Arizona, and at least 85 now face the same fate – including various British prisoners on death row in California. It is crucial that the British government acts immediately to prevent complicity in further tragedies.

Reprieve’s Director Clive Stafford Smith said: “Vince Cable has had a difficult few weeks, but it is never too late to refocus on what he entered government to do. We are asking that he devote half an hour to helping to prevent scores of executions. Since he apparently spent 20 hours rehearsing his foxtrot for Strictly Come Dancing, this does not seem too much to ask.

“The Foreign Office is struggling to help us prevent the execution of British nationals in the US, at the same time as Mr Cable sits on his hands and allows the export of British drugs that will kill those same prisoners. Mr Cable’s department can hardly claim to be in a coalition, when he is acting in opposition.

“Somewhere an unethical British company is marking the price of these drugs up 3,500%, making obscene blood money selling them to America’s executioners. The response by various pharmaceutical companies has been pitiful, placing their commercial interests far above any concern for human life. Hameln is the sole exception. While there is no reason to suppose that their drugs were the ones actually exported to the US, their Managing Director immediately took every step possible to help plug the leak to the executing states.”

For more information please contact Emma Draper at Reprieve’s Press Office: / 07910-837008 or Clive Stafford Smith: / 07940-347125.

Other contacts: Dr. Margaret A. Hamburg, Commissioner, FDA, tel: (US) 301-575-0156; Vince Cable, Business Secretary, tel: (UK) 020 7215 5000

Notes for Editors:


The US has recently run short of sodium thiopental, one of the drugs used in the execution protocol. On Monday 25th October, 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 British company will contribute to three more deaths there.

Soon afterwards, 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 28th October, Reprieve and Leigh Day & Co contacted the Government and asked for emergency measures to be taken to avoid British complicity in Mr Zagorski’s execution. On Monday 1st November Mr Cable responded that the British government would take no such step, because if the US did not get the drug from the UK it would just go elsewhere. Mr Cable also said he was unwilling to interfere unnecessarily in US-UK trade. On behalf of the FCO, Jeremy Browne took the same line.

On Tuesday 2nd November lawyers with Leigh Day filed a judicial review application of the government’s refusal to lift a hand to prevent British complicity in a series of American executions. The British government finally announced an export restriction on Monday 29th November.

On 6th December the California authorities stated that they had imported the drugs from Archimedes Pharma and that the drugs were currently with the FDA in Washington DC:

State corrections officials today revealed how they obtained a scarce drug used in lethal injection executions, saying they received one small batch from Arizona officials and ordered another, larger batch from a British manufacturer.

California corrections spokeswoman Terry Thornton said the first batch of 12 grams of sodium thiopental came from Arizona on Sept. 30 and that California was not charged for it.

The second batch of 521 grams was ordered from Archimedes Pharma, a British company, and corrections officials paid $36,415 for it, she said. The shipment was approved by U.S. Customs officials and the Drug Enforcement Administration, Thornton said, and is now on hold on the East coast awaiting release by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

“We have followed all the proper procedures,” Thornton said.

The origin of the drugs is the subject of a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, which won a court order requiring corrections officials to reveal where they got the drugs by Tuesday.

The ACLU contends that it is illegal for corrections officials to use a foreign-produced drug in executions and the matter has become an international controversy. Britain last week tightened rules governing the export of the drug to the United States, a move that came after California made its purchase.

See Sam Stanton, California got execution drugs from Arizona, British sources, Sacramento Bee (Dec. 6, 2010), at (accessed Dec. 7, 2010).

While the list cost of the drugs imported by California should under no circumstances be more than $1,000, California has paid $36,415 for its supply – a blood money mark up of 3,500%.

Sodium thiopental is one of a cocktail of three drugs prescribed for use in lethal injections by US states which retain the death penalty. Sodium thiopental is supposed to anaesthetise the victim, before pancuronium bromide is used to paralyse him, and finally potassium chloride is used to induce a heart attack. Sodium thiopental is a bona fide anaesthetic and is included in the WHO list of essential medicines.

However, it is old and has largely been superseded by more modern and efficacious drugs in western countries. Its use in the United States, other than for lethal injections, is confined to a few residual specialist areas. The only producer of the drug in the United States, Hospira, had ceased production due to a shortage of raw ingredients.

The FDA takes the position that the importation of sodium thiopental is illegal: On 22nd October, FDA spokesperson Shelly Burgess told The Arizona Republic that there is no FDA-approved source for the importation of sodium thiopental. Burgess said that the FDA has control over its manufacture and distribution in the US. “The FDA is not aware of any firm currently able to supply thiopental to the U.S.,” she said. “A company would need to submit an application to FDA in order to be considered for approval including approval for overseas manufacturers of a drug for U.S. markets.” See Arizona Republic (October 22, 2010),

On 16th December, Reprieve brought to Vince Cable’s attention that Arizona had already sourced the other two execution drugs (pancuronium bromide and potassium chloride) from the UK, and was advising California on how to do the same. Reprieve asked for a ban on the export of these two drugs as well by 20th December. Cable’s office has provided no reply.

Background on Reprieve:

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’s current casework involves representing prisoners in the US prison at Guantánamo Bay, working on behalf of prisoners facing the death penalty, and conducting ongoing investigations into the rendition and the secret detention of ‘ghost prisoners’ in the so-called ‘war on terror.’

ReprievePO Box 52742London EC4P 4WSTel: 020 7353 4640Fax: 020 7353 4641Email:

Reprieve is a charitable company limited by guarantee; Registered Charity No. 1114900 Registered Company No. 5777831 (England) Registered Office 2-6 Cannon Street London EC4M 6YH; Patrons: Alan Bennett, Julie Christie, Martha Lane Fox, Gordon Roddick, Jon Snow, Marina Warner