Death Penalty Information
Monday, January 14, 2008
China: Olympics puts spotlight on China
Olympics prep spotlights executions in China
In 10 years on China's highest court, Xuan Dong had a hand in the
executions of 1,000 people - most carried out by a bullet to the back of
the head, often within weeks of the verdict.
On his worst days, he considered himself a Communist Party hanging judge.
Sitting on the Supreme People's Court, he represented the last hope of the
condemned. Secretly, he loathed rubber-stamping the party's death
sentences, often accepting confessions he knew were gotten by torture. He
watched silently as lawyers were beaten and dragged from court if they
dared to challenge the party's will.
In 2000, Xuan walked away from the bench to battle for human rights. Now,
as China re-evaluates its hard-line policies on capital punishment, the
59-year-old defense lawyer has called for public trials, more media
exposure and protections for lawyers and less party interference with the
"The party should not give instructions" to judges, he said. "There have
been changes bit by bit, but they are too slow."
Recently, Xuan and other rights advocates have seen progress within a
legal system that each year is estimated to execute more people than all
other countries combined. Legislation enacted last year requires the high
court to review all death sentences, a step that had been dropped 2
Facing pressure before the 2008 Olympics in Beijing in August, China
reportedly has scaled back the pace of executions. Although the government
considers the number a state secret, China executed 1,051 people in 2006 -
about two-thirds of the 1,591 put to death worldwide that year, according
to statistics from Amnesty International that are often based on media
reports. That represented a 40 percent drop from China's recorded total of
1,770 the previous year.
The high court reviewed only a small portion of the capital cases in
recent years. Lower courts had operated virtually without oversight since
the country's de facto leader at the time, Deng Xiaoping, gave them the
power to impose capital punishment in the wake of a corruption and crime
wave in the 1980s. Acquittals are rare and appeals are made in the same
court, heard by poorly trained provincial judges little inclined to
contradict themselves, according to studies by criminal justice experts.
The studies, relying on interviews with defense lawyers and defendants,
paint a bleak picture: China's courts have no juries, police have
unchecked powers - and forensics rarely are used in reaching verdicts that
vary wildly depending on region, party influence and a defendant's
A plethora of offenses
68 offenses - including nonviolent crimes such as tax evasion, drug
smuggling and pornography distribution - carry the death penalty.
Officials are considering reducing the number of crimes punishable by
execution, but they say acts such as corruption, bribery and national
security violations still might lead to death sentences.
The legal reforms, advocated by a growing lobby of Chinese lawyers and
scholars, are part of a policy that officials call "kill fewer, kill
carefully." It calls for improved trial and review processes, and it
requires that all death penalty appeals be heard in open court.
Experts are divided over how much substance the reforms carry. "For China,
it's an exciting breakthrough," said Jerome Cohen, a New York University
law professor and an expert on Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations.
"Death penalty reforms will lead the way for improved procedures for other
major criminal cases."
Others say the Chinese legal system still lacks transparency. "So you have
the return of an important piece of review," said Sharon Hom, executive
director of the Manhattan-based group Human Rights in China. "But you're
reviewing a system that is still politicized, that still does not welcome
independent judges and where lawyers raising questions about abuse or
torture are being harassed and beaten up."
Human Rights in China last year released a report documenting the abuse of
defense lawyers. From 1997 to 2002, more than 500 were jailed.
Li Heping, 37, a Beijing lawyer, said police tortured suspects to get
confessions in several of his death penalty cases. They also denied him
access to his clients. "I'm seen as an enemy of the police," he said.
"When you come to court, you feel surrounded by hunters. And you are their
(source: Los Angeles Times)