They are harrowing pictures that have triggered a debate about the death penalty. Four condemned women laugh and joke with one another, play cards, eat McDonald's and fuss over their hair and make-up in the hours before their execution. Suppressed since they were taken, in 2003, for fear of triggering sympathy for the women, all convicted of drug trafficking, the extraordinary images began circulating online last month, after being featured in a television documentary.
What makes the pictures so evocative is that they capture the genuine camaraderie between the condemned women and the prison officers, and the emotions of the prisoners as they prepare to face the firing squad. One prisoner in particular - the youngest woman, 25-year-old He Xiuling - veers from exaggerated joviality to utter despair, breaking down in tears as the hour of her death draws near.
Minutes after the final images - showing the women being guided away - were taken, each of the four was led to the execution ground and dispatched in the traditional way, with a bullet to the back of the head.
Since the pictures began circulating, an online debate has raged within the mainland, which, according to some estimates, executes up to 5,000 prisoners a year. That would be more than every other country combined, although official statistics are never released.
To put stories to the images, Post Magazine travelled to Wuhan, Hubei province, where the pictures were taken, and tracked down the photographer and records of the women's crimes.
ACCORDING TO court records and interviews conducted in jail, He's journey to death row began when, as a naive young woman from the countryside, she left her family to seek excitement in the city and ended up being sucked into the heroin trade. With no wealth or political connections to save her life, it took just 15 months from the day of her arrest to her execution, which was timed to coincide with a United Nations anti-drugs day and highlight Beijing's efforts against the heroin trade.
The daughter of a small businessman, He grew up in Xiantao, a shabby, backward city of 300,000 people in rural Hubei, two hours' drive from Wuhan and best known for tough gymnasiums that turn children into Olympic-standard athletes.
Vivacious and outgoing but a poor student, He graduated from high school with average grades and found herself trapped in a factory job. At 24, she defied her family and moved to Zhongshan city, in relatively cosmopolitan Guangzhou. There, she set up home with a boyfriend, Wang Qizhi, but threatened to leave him when she discovered he was a drug dealer. He won her over with gifts including jewellery and a mobile phone.
In January 2002, Wang persuaded her to collect a consignment of heroin smuggled in a microwave oven container from Guangzhou to Wuhan and deliver it to a hotel, where it was collected by a courier. The operation ran smoothly and Wang talked her into doing two more drug runs, in February and March of that year. On the third trip, she was arrested by police in Wuhan and caught with 7kg of heroin. Wang, who had used a false name, fled and was never traced.
Reportedly advised by police to confess in return for the possibility of a lighter sentence, He pleaded guilty to drug trafficking and was sentenced to death at a hearing in September 2002. When her death sentence was passed, she broke down in court, crying out to the judge: 'I want to live. I am still young. Please give me a second chance to live.'
According to a journalist working for a police newspaper, who visited her in prison, He was convinced her death sentence would be revoked.
'Fellow inmates told her the sentence would be changed to 15 years in prison,' the journalist says. 'She would sing in her cell and she told everyone, 'I'll still only be 40 when I'm free.' She was a simple girl who never believed her execution would really go ahead. I think warders encouraged her to believe that, maybe out of kindness. But they must have known she had no chance of a reprieve because she'd been caught with so much heroin.'
Even though He's appeals against her conviction and sentence were dismissed, she apparently remained convinced she would be reprieved.
In a letter to her parents written hours before her execution, He, who had an older brother, appeared to have finally accepted her fate, writing: 'Mum and Dad, I am so sorry I have been such a disappointment.
'You used to tell me off for being naughty, but I never knew I would get into so much trouble. I wanted to go away and make money to send back and to look after you, but it all went wrong. I'm so sorry for causing you so much worry and anxiety.'
Local newspaper photographer Yan Yuhong, 36, who took the pictures, meets us in a coffee shop in Wuhan and says that of all the women, He left a particularly strong impression on him. Yan remembers the moment He signed the documents accepting her death sentence, immediately before being taken to her execution. She spent her last night with fellow prisoners and warders but, as she signed the formal execution papers, she found herself surrounded by strangers.
'There were a lot of people staring at her, and I was the only person she recognised,' Yan says. 'She looked at me and smiled. I tried to give her a comforting look in return. When she left, she was in tears.
'To me, she just seemed like a young lost girl,' says Yan. 'I believe she was an innocent. Some people traffic drugs to make money and others do it because they are innocents. I don't think she had any idea about the damage that drugs do to society and to people. She did it out of innocence.'
Yan landed the macabre assignment when his newspaper sought picture stories to illustrate the United Nations' International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking, on June 26, 2003. Yan made a speculative request to take pictures of condemned traffickers and prison officials agreed to let him in.
'I was there from 9pm the night before the execution until the moment they were led away to their deaths [which took place at 9am],' he says. 'The women were a bit surprised when they saw a photographer, but after a while we communicated and they accepted me.'
That night, Yan took a poignant series of images. He laughed and joked with her fellow death-row prisoners and female warders and fussed over what top to wear for her execution.
'I couldn't believe she was worried about her appearance. It didn't seem as if it could be important to me,' Yan says. 'But she wanted to look her best, even though she was going to die. She put on a white shirt at first but then she said to the police officer, 'It makes me look fat.' So they got a black top for her instead.
'Throughout the night, the prisoners and the warders were joking with each other. They had a good relationship. They were like sisters. They were telling jokes to each other and telling each other about their families.
'On the morning of the execution, one of the other condemned prisoners asked for her clothes to be given to a friend in the prison, who is poor and didn't have any decent clothes of her own,' the photographer says. 'What surprised me was that the prisoners had such a good relationship with each other. You might expect it of students at college or soldiers serving in the army together, but not among condemned prisoners. They had a real camaraderie and I hadn't expected that. They looked after each other, they fed each other and they cared for each other.
'What I saw changed the way I thought about these people. I pitied them and I felt very sorry for them. They didn't do anything violent. They were just ordinary people. They are criminals, but they are human, too. They have feelings, and they have a good side as well as a bad side.'
When Yan handed his pictures to his newspaper, the editors decided not to publish them, considering them too politically sensitive and thinking they might upset officials. They were published without fanfare in a newspaper in southern China, but were only widely seen when they were featured in a documentary last month.
Yan says he supports the death penalty but, even eight years on, is clearly affected by what he saw that night in 2003.
'It all happened a long time ago and when I finished the story, I found it difficult to put it behind me,' he says. 'After a few years, I didn't think about it anymore. But then the pictures went out on the internet and they have reminded me again.'
Ma Qingxiu - the woman who gave her clothes to a poor fellow prisoner - was twice condemned to death, for separate crimes. In 1970, she was given the death penalty for murdering her mother-in-law by lacing her food with arsenic. She was given a reprieve because of good behaviour and eventually released from prison in 1995.
After her release, she opened a small shop, but her business failed and she ran into heavy debt. In 2001, she began trafficking drugs, earning 5,000 yuan for smuggling heroin from Ruili city, Yunnan province, to Wuhan. Lured by what she saw as easy money, Ma did more drug runs and was caught in December 2001. Eleven months later, in November 2002, she was sentenced to death by the Wuhan Intermediate People's Court.
'I don't think the pictures have changed people's opinions, but they have made a lot of people think about the death penalty,' Yan says.
One popular news website that ran the pictures drew 3,000 comments, with many people turning their anger on officials.
'I cried after seeing these pictures,' one reader posts. 'How can we do this to other human beings? There are lots of corrupt Chinese officials whose crimes are much worse, but they never get the death penalty because of their powerful connections.
'What these women did is nowhere near as bad as what corrupt officials in China do. They are the ones who should be shot.'
On another website that carried the pictures, a poster writes: 'The law is not fair. On the news the other day, there was the case of a man convicted of drug trafficking, raping young girls, organising a prostitution racket and running a gang.
'Each of his crimes could have gotten him the death penalty, but instead he was sentenced to 20 years in prison and fined 6.5 million yuan.'
Others had little sympathy for the women. 'Drugs destroy people's lives,' one posts. 'We shouldn't feel sorry for these women because they were poor. Lots of poor people live happy lives without turning to wicked crimes. There is no reason to feel sorry for these women. They got the deaths they deserved.'