Alabama’s planned nitrogen execution could be torture, UN says 

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By Carina

The United Nations’s human rights office has issued a stern warning to Alabama about its impending execution of an inmate using nitrogen gas. 

The office, deeply concerned, declared on Tuesday that such a method could potentially be tantamount to torture. 

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UN concerned over potential torture in first U.S. nitrogen execution

Scheduled for January 25, the execution of Kenneth Eugene Smith would be the first instance in the U.S. where nitrogen hypoxia is used, a method that deprives a person of oxygen necessary for sustaining bodily functions.

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Ravina Shamdasani, a spokesperson for the U.N. Human Rights Office, voiced alarm at the planned execution during a briefing in Geneva. 

“We have serious concerns that Smith’s execution in these circumstances could breach the prohibition on torture or other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, as well as his right to effective remedies,” Shamdasani stated. 

UN cites human rights treaties, questions Alabama’s nitrogen execution method

She highlighted that the U.S. is bound by international human rights treaties that explicitly outline these rights.

Shamdasani further noted that nitrogen gas has not previously been used for executions in the U.S. and that Alabama does not have a protocol for sedation before using this method. 

She mentioned that large animals are often sedated when executed with nitrogen gas. “Smith has also advanced, with expert evidence, that such an execution by gas asphyxiation, in his case, risks particular pain and suffering,” Shamdasani added.

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Judge allows Smith’s execution by nitrogen hypoxia

Despite ongoing appeals and unresolved federal court proceedings, a federal judge recently decided that Smith’s execution could proceed as planned, rejecting his request for an injunction. 

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Although nitrogen hypoxia is authorized in Oklahoma, Mississippi, and Alabama, Smith’s execution would mark the first of its kind in the United States.

The decision to employ nitrogen hypoxia was ratified last year by the Alabama Supreme Court in response to the state attorney general’s request for Smith’s execution. 

Debate over nitrogen execution in 1988 Alabama murder, amid UN warnings 

Smith, along with another individual, was convicted for the 1988 murder-for-hire of Elizabeth Sennett in Alabama’s Colbert County.

Proponents of the nitrogen gas method argue that it results in a painless execution. In contrast, the Alabama attorney general emphasized last year the lengthy 35-year wait of Sennett’s family to see justice served. 

However, U.N. experts from the Human Rights Council’s special procedures program have cautioned that the execution method is “untested” and carries a risk of “grave suffering.”

UN calls for U.S. execution suspension, questions ethics of capital punishment

Shamdasani’s comments echo broader concerns from U.N. human rights experts about the use of the death penalty. 

She argued that capital punishment is “inconsistent with the fundamental right to life” and urged the United States to suspend all executions. 

This plea from the U.N. Human Rights Office reflects a global perspective on the ethics and legality of capital punishment, especially in cases involving untested methods like nitrogen hypoxia.

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