Secrecy, Unfair Trials, Overbroad Laws Still the Rule Despite Reform
October 9, 2007
As the world focuses on China’s poor human rights record in the run-up to the Olympics, the Chinese government could avoid further embarrassment by making a bold step to address its position as the world’s leading executioner of its own citizens.
Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch

(New York) - China should impose a moratorium on all executions as a goodwill gesture before the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, Human Rights Watch said today. Human Rights Watch issued its call for a moratorium in advance of the World Day against the Death Penalty on October 10. China is estimated to execute more people than the rest of the world combined.

Human Rights Watch said that during the moratorium the Chinese government should sharply reduce the number of crimes eligible for the death penalty, make public the number of people executed and awaiting execution, and institute changes in trial and appeal procedures to ensure that they meet at least international minimum standards of fairness in all cases where capital punishment is demanded by prosecutors.

“As the world focuses on China’s poor human rights record in the run-up to the Olympics, the Chinese government could avoid further embarrassment by making a bold step to address its position as the world’s leading executioner of its own citizens,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

The Chinese government classifies as “state secrets” all statistics regarding capital punishment. Credible estimates suggest approximately 7,500 executions per year. State media claim that the number of people executed decreased in 2007 after the adoption of a system of mandatory vetting by the Supreme People’s Court, China’s highest judicial institution, took effect on January 1, 2007. The government also cites two additional regulations aimed at “killing fewer, killing more cautiously,” which were promulgated on February 27 and March 9, respectively. However, while this new system provides an additional centralized administrative review, it does not address serious systemic weaknesses in the trial process.

“The reported decrease in the number of executions is welcome, but that is no substitute for full transparency, fair trials, adequate defense counsel, and judicial independence,” said Adams. “Because of structural deficiencies in the conduct of trials in China, no one executed in China today receives a fair trial in line with international standards.”

The Chinese criminal justice system recognizes neither the presumption of innocence nor the right to remain silent, and places sharp limits on defense counsel and the rights of the accused. Torture to obtain confessions remains prevalent. A spate of wrongful convictions have emerged in recent years, with the deputy procurator-general, Wang Zhenchuan, estimating in 2006 that there are at least 30 cases every year of wrongful convictions attributable to confessions extracted through torture and that “nearly every wrongful verdict in recent years relates to illegal interrogation.”

Chinese scholars have also expressed doubts that the newly introduced regulations can ensure justice in cases that have political implications. In particular, they point to the extreme speed with which the Supreme People’s Court approved the execution of two former senior officials whose cases had national repercussions. In the case of Zheng Xiaoyu, the former head of China’s food and drug agency, who was charged with corruption, the Supreme Court completed its review in 13 working days, while it took just 10 working days for Duan Yihe, a member of the Chinese People’s Congress from Jinan, Shandong Province, who was convicted of murdering his mistress in a car explosion.

The desire to be seen as being tough on corruption and public order and to “appease public indignation” is a repeated justification advanced by the Chinese government to retain capital punishment.

Human Rights Watch said it was particularly concerned about official announcements by top security officials that the authorities would carry out anti-crime campaigns in the run-up of the 2008 Summer Olympics. These campaigns are often directly linked with an increase in death penalty sentences and executions.

In July, China’s top law and order official, Luo Gan, announced that the authorities would “crack down severely on all kinds of hostile forces and troublemakers” bent on disturbing a “peaceful Olympics,” and “severely punish all kinds of crimes.”

“The International Olympics Committee should publicly press China for a moratorium on all executions during the Games,” said Adams. “This would be in line with the Olympic Charter, which aims to promote through sport ‘a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.’”

The death penalty is currently mandated for no fewer than 68 crimes, including embezzlement and corruption. Chinese legal experts have long advocated that the most effective way of limiting the number of executions would be to limit the death penalty to violent crimes. But the government has shied away from such reform, because it does not want to appear as if it is unwilling to punish severely corrupt cadres and party officials, which is a growing cause of social discontent in China.

Although the death penalty has not been banned categorically in international law, the strong trend is toward its eventual abolition. Human Rights Watch opposes the death penalty in all circumstances as inherently cruel, irreversible, and usually discriminatory in application, and believes it violates the right to life and fundamental dignity that all human beings possess.

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