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U.N. experts raise concerns over first U.S. execution by nitrogen gas

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International human rights experts are urging officials to reconsider the upcoming execution of Alabama death row inmate Kenneth Eugene Smith, scheduled for January 25, utilizing the controversial method of nitrogen hypoxia.

The United Nations, through a statement issued by Human Rights Council special procedures experts Morris Tidball-Binz, Alice Jill Edwards, Tlaeng Mofokeng, and Margaret Satterthwaite, expressed worries about the potential for a “painful and humiliating death” associated with this untested execution method.

Alabama is one of three U.S. states permitting nitrogen hypoxia for capital punishment, alongside Oklahoma and Mississippi. This execution would mark the first attempt at nitrogen hypoxia, raising concerns as there is “no scientific evidence to prove” that it won’t cause “grave suffering,” according to the U.N. statement.

The U.N. experts have directly appealed to both U.S. federal authorities and Alabama officials, requesting a review of the state’s execution protocol. Notably, Alabama’s method involves asphyxiating the condemned inmate by administering pure nitrogen through a gas mask, a process that remains untested and has sparked criticism for potential risks to individuals present in the execution chamber.

Kenneth Eugene Smith’s scheduled execution follows Alabama’s authorization of nitrogen hypoxia in 2018, prompted by a shortage of lethal injection drugs. The inmate survived a previous attempt at execution in November 2022 due to difficulties locating a suitable vein for lethal injection.

Human rights advocates argue that using nitrogen hypoxia may violate U.N. principles protecting detained individuals and an international treaty against torture, although a U.S. Supreme Court ruling has exempted capital punishment from the latter as long as it complies with the Constitution. The redacted execution protocol outlines safety measures but faces criticism for denying inmates a spiritual adviser unless they sign an acknowledgment form. Rev. Jeffrey Hood, a spiritual adviser, has filed a lawsuit challenging the use of nitrogen gas, citing dangers to his life and violations of religious liberties.

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