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Arizona prepares for death row executions with gas once used by Nazis

After nearly seven years, Arizona will begin to execute death row inmates again — and has purchased the ingredients to make hydrogen cyanide, or HCN, a lethal gas once used by Nazis.

Zyklon B, a powerful insecticide, is a carrier for hydrogen cyanide, which was used to kill Jews at Auschwitz, according to the Jewish Virtual Library. HCN, which is extremely poisonous to humans, is the cause of death following the application of Zyklon B.

An average of 6,000 Jews were killed each day using Zyklon B at the Auschwitz II killing center, according to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

According to the Jewish Virtual Library, Zyklon B has been used in execution gas chambers in the U.S, with the first built in 1920 in Arizona. Now, the state is acquiring more of the lethal gas.

According to documents obtained by The Guardian, the Arizona Department of Corrections ordered ingredients to make HCN. The department paid more than $2,000, according to the redacted documents, which were obtained by the publication through a public records request.

The department is also refurbishing an old gas chamber that was built in 1949 and was used for 22 years, according to the Guardian.

In a statement to CBS News, the Arizona Department of Corrections said it "is prepared to perform its legal obligation and commence the execution process as part of the legally imposed sentence, regardless of method selected. (The department) stands ready, with the Arizona Attorney General's Office, to carry out court orders and deliver justice to the victims' families.

"According to (Arizona law), a defendant who is sentenced to death for an offense committed before November 23, 1992 shall choose either lethal injection or lethal gas at least twenty days before the execution date. If the defendant fails to choose either lethal injection or lethal gas, the penalty of death shall be by lethal injection."

According to the nonprofit organization Death Penalty Information Center, 27 states currently retain the death penalty. There are 119 people on Arizona's death row and the state has executed 37 people since 1976, when the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty.

Arizona hasn't executed a death row inmate since 2014, when Joseph Wood's execution by lethal injection took two hours, the longest in U.S. history. It was supposed to take 10 minutes, but the botched execution went horribly awry.

"Witnesses reported that Wood gasped and snorted more than 600 times during the execution," the Death Penalty Information Center said in a press release. "Subsequent litigation forced the state to abandon that execution protocol."

In March, the department announced it would begin using a new execution protocol, the barbiturate pentobarbital, according to the center. However, the department said it could not obtain a supply of the lethal injection drug.

But last month, The Guardian reported that documents it had obtained revealed the department spent $1.5 million to purchase pentobarbital from an undisclosed source.

Death Penalty Information Center says the department faced criticism for spending so much money when its infrastructure was crumbling, it was understaffed and it was providing "substandard medical care."

"The exorbitant price, experts say, is a function of the questionable use of the drug for non-medical purposes and the secretive nature of the transaction," the center said in a press release. CBS News has reached out to the center for comment and is awaiting a response.

The state is facing criticism yet again for obtaining the means to make HCN, the chemical in Zyklon B. "The proposal to use Zyklon B in executions is not only insulting to the victims of the Holocaust, but also shows a grave lack of understanding of its history at a time when knowledge of this horrific event is at an all-time low," Kathrin Meyer, secretary general of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, said in a statement to CBS News.

"This example reminds us of our responsibility to advance Holocaust education around the world," Meyer said. "The IHRA will continue to engage governments and educators, using our Recommendations for Teaching and Learning about the Holocaust, to enhance understanding of the historical events of the past."

Arizona has a controversial history with trying to obtain lethal drugs to kill death row inmates. In 2015, Arizona tried to illegally import sodium thiopental. The drug, which had been used to carry out executions, was no longer manufactured by companies approved by the Food and Drug Administration, and federal agents seized the shipment at the Phoenix airport before the drugs made it to the department.

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