Death penalty in China linked to social inequality, say critics

Beijing has made some strides in reforming how death penalty gets meted out, but experts say more transparency is needed in system

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 10 October, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 10 October, 2013, 11:35am

Early on the morning of September 25, representatives from a Shenyang court in Liaoning province went to the home of Zhang Jing with news her husband, Xia Junfeng, would be executed in a few hours. She should go to the detention centre to say her good-byes, they said.

Xia, who sold roasted sausages and other snacks on the street after losing his factory job, was convicted of "intentional homicide" in the stabbing death of two urban management officers in 2009 after they beat him. He insists he acted in self-defence.

Despite a long review of his case by the Supreme People's Court, the death sentence was upheld. "As long as there is still one person back at my home, tell them not to give up appealing for me," Xia said in his last words to his wife, she later told the South China Morning Post.

Xia wanted to have a final photo taken with his family, but officials refused. "How could you be so cruel?" Zhang said on her microblog.

Gu Kailai , 53-year-old daughter of a Communist Party elder, was also convicted of "intentional homicide". She poured rat poison and cyanide mixed in water down the throat of drunken British businessman Neil Heywood in a room at the Lucky Holiday Hotel on November 14, 2011, in Chongqing , where Gu's husband, Bo Xilai served as party boss.

She received a suspended death sentence last year, and could be released from jail after serving nine years, on the grounds of medical parole, according to the Dui Hua Foundation, a US-based group that pushes for human rights and legal reforms on the mainland.

Today is "World Day Against the Death Penalty", an initiative launched in 2002 by an alliance of more than 145 non-governmental groups aiming to get rid of capital punishment. While the mainland has taken significant steps in recent years to limit the number of people its courts sentence to death, observers agree a ban is a long way off. Judicial officials often say the concept of "a life for a life" remains ingrained in society, and the nation is at a stage of development where the death penalty is necessary as a deterrent.

There are key differences between the cases of Xia and Gu, her mental health was taken into account by the court for instance, but they help to illustrate what lawyers and activists say is an unfair application of capital punishment on the mainland.

Mao Lixin, a Beijing-based criminal lawyer, said capital punishment was linked to social inequality. Defendants lower on the economic ladder often lacked the resources to hire the legal assistance they deserved, Mao said. "Xia's case is a classic example [of this] when compared to that of Gu," he said.

Rights lawyer Liu Xiaoyuan agreed. "In cases like Xia's, a suspended death penalty is more than enough, but he was nevertheless given a harsh sentence," Liu said. "It seems the sentence is most often imposed for violent crimes, especially in cases where civilians have clashed with the government or where law enforcement officers were attacked."

When it comes to corrupt officials, the courts have often taken a different approach. In July, former railway minister Liu Zhijun was found guilty of taking bribes and other gifts worth 64.6 million yuan (HK$81.6 million) in addition to helping get 11 people promoted in exchange for favours.

Liu received a suspended death sentence, which could be commuted to life imprisonment with good behaviour. His term could be subsequently reduced to as little as 13 years if he is not cited for further lapses.

"The death penalty can be imposed on officials who received bribes worth more than 100,000 yuan," Liu said. "However, in recent cases, toppled officials, including Liu who took bribes worth tens of millions of yuan, were not sentenced to death."

The death penalty can be imposed on officials who received bribes worth more than 100,000 yuan. In recent cases, toppled officials, including Liu who took bribes worth tens of millions of yuan, were not sentenced to death
Rights lawyer Liu Xiaoyuan

His case contrasts with that of former Hunan tycoon Zeng Chengjie, who was executed by firing squad in July after being found guilty of illegally raising 3.4 billion yuan and defrauding investors.

Currently, 158 countries in the world have abolished or are no longer imposing the death penalty. China puts to death more people than any other country, although Iran and Singapore have higher per capita execution rates.

It is impossible to accurately state how many people are being executed on the mainland every year as the number remains a state secret. The Dui Hua Foundation estimated there were 4,000 executions in 2011 and 3,000 last year, using information provided by Professor William Schabas who is an international criminal law and human rights scholar with honorary professorship at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

Ten years ago, the figure was thought to be as high as 12,000.

"It's hard to say whether 3,000 is an underestimate because no knows the real figures besides the state," Mao said. "The international community has been pushing China to disclose statistics over its use of the death penalty," he said, noting countries such as Vietnam and North Korea also kept death penalty figures secret.

In recent years, mainland authorities have rolled out measures aimed at reducing the use of capital punishment, most notably passing a law in 2006 that required the Supreme People's Court to approve each death sentence. The government has also shortened the long list of crimes punishable by death, from 68 to 55. But, even if a ban is not likely soon, there are additional reforms authorities can enact.

"Introducing transparency into the process of capital punishment is the first step in fostering a national discussion on whether to abolish the death penalty," Mao said.

Many legal professionals have called for the review procedure to be made more open, with more detailed rules. At present, there is no time frame within which a review must take place. Family members are often only notified of the decision when they are called in to meet the defendant one last time.

The review is also done in an internal meeting, instead of an open hearing. And while the judges should meet a defence lawyer if asked, that does not always happen.

One of the strongest arguments against capital punishment is the possibility that an innocent person would be wrongly put to death. Last month, the Higher People's Court in Hebei rejected an appeal by Wang Shujin based on his confession to the rape and murder of a woman, whose body was found in a cornfield in Shijiazhuang in 1994. Nie Shubin , another Hebei man, was convicted of the murder and executed in 1995, at age 20.

Disappointed at the ruling, 40 lawyers published an open letter "strongly condemning" the Hebei court for upholding Wang's death sentence and rejecting his confession, blocking a possible review of Nie's case.

"The consequences of a wrongful conviction in which a person is put to death cannot be reversed. This is a factor that will likely sway society against the death penalty," Mao said.

He urged the government to step up education and establish alternatives to the death sentence, such as harsher life imprisonment.