Carrying out the death penalty cannot be black and white
China has made progress on capital punishment but the recent case of a rural man executed for killing an official over house demolition gives pause for thought
China’s justice system has attracted less attention of late for use of the death penalty. Reasons include the mandatory referral of death sentences to the Supreme People’s Court for approval and the imposition of suspended death sentences, notably for grave offences by corrupt officials. An exception is the execution in northern China last week – despite a public outcry – of rural man Jia Jinglong, 30, found guilty by a court in Hebei (河北) province of killing an official responsible for the forced demolition of his house.
This ended one of the most controversial cases in recent years. Wide debate in the media and among lawyers and legal scholars included the issue of equality before the law of “the less well off [who] long for equal protection of their properties and for legal justice”. The foregoing quote is from a joint open letter addressed to China’s top judge, Zhou Qiang (周強), in which a dozen scholars and lawyers called for a stay of execution. The letter argued that the forced demolition violated housing regulations and that Jia had suffered unlawful intimidation.
It drew attention to the comparative leniency shown in the sentencing of corrupt government officials. Lawyers also cited the suspended death sentence on Gu Kailai, wife of former Chongqing (重慶) party secretary Bo Xilai (薄熙來), for murdering British businessman Neil Heywood in 2011. At the time, an official did say the court took into account Gu’s mental state and Heywood’s threats to her son, whereas in Jia’s case a Supreme People’s Court spokesman said the crime was premeditated.
For rights activists, modern China’s progress in reducing the use of the death penalty remains agonisingly slow. Hopefully, despite the justification in Jia’s case, the public and legal controversy , with its implicit social undertones of double standards, will give officials pause for another round of reflection. Most death penalties nowadays may be for violent crimes like murder and terrorism. But liberal use of capital punishment raises the risk of executing prisoners wrongfully convicted by courts that rarely find anyone innocent.