Kenneth Smith
File photo of inmate Kenneth Smith, who was convicted in a 1988 murder-for-hire slaying of a preacher's wife. Alabama will be allowed to put Smith to death with nitrogen gas later this month, a federal judge ruled. Image Credit: Alabama Department of Corrections via AP

Geneva: The UN human rights office on Tuesday called on the US state of Alabama to halt its first planned execution of a prisoner by nitrogen gas asphyxiation this month, saying it could amount to torture and violate US commitments under international law.

Kenneth Smith, convicted for a murder-for-hire committed in 1988, is scheduled to be executed in Alabama on January 25 using the method, in which execution officials will bind a mask to his face connected to a cylinder of nitrogen intended to deprive him of oxygen.

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"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," Ravina Shamdasani, spokesperson for the UN Human Rights Office, told a press briefing in Geneva.

"These are rights that are set out in two international human rights treaties that the US is bound by," she added.

Shamdasani said Smith's appeal against his execution had not been concluded.

She also voiced concern that Alabama's protocol made no provision for a sedative prior to execution - a measure which she said is a formal recommendation of the American Veterinary Medical Association for euthanising large animals.

US states have found it increasingly difficult to obtain barbiturates used in lethal-injection execution protocols, in part because of a European ban preventing pharmaceutical companies from selling drugs to be used in executions.

As a result, some states have sought to revive older methods such as firing squads, while Alabama, Mississippi and Oklahoma have introduced new gas-based protocols.

"It is worrying that this is gaining ground as a method of execution," Shamdasani said.

The UN rights office has raised the issue repeatedly with US federal authorities, Shamdasani said. Other UN experts have also sounded the alarm over the planned execution.

According to Amnesty International, the United States executed 18 people in 2022.