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Justice by death in China

China — where more prisoners are executed than the rest of the world — hits a wall of public reluctance to abolish the ultimate penalty, in spite of a stirring for change. Reshma Patil reports. Road to abolition | Death row worldwide

world Updated: Sep 18, 2011 01:06 IST
Reshma Patil
Reshma Patil
Hindustan Times

With a bullet in the back of the neck or lethal injection, China has executed thousands of prisoners in the decade since the assassins of Rajiv Gandhi paced death row in India.

In China, perhaps more than in any of the 58 nations enforcing capital punishment, the public demand an eye for an eye.

"Most Chinese people can’t imagine a society without death penalty,’’ rights lawyer Teng Biao told HT in Beijing. "They don’t have the chance to know of an alternative.’’

The Communist Party this year cut its list of capital crimes — forging tax invoices, for example, is no longer a deadly sin. But leniency for graver crimes like corruption and hit-and-runs still face public resistance. Beijing also tried to plug growing public anger over toxic milk and food with an assurance that food safety violators who cause fatalities will be punishable by death.

Recent death sentences aimed at showing the public the party’s grip on high-profile corruption down to the farmer who laces pork with chemicals. Since June, China has executed a 21-year-old music student who stabbed a waitress to death, two corrupt ex-vice mayors of Hangzhou and Suzhou and a truck driver convicted of killing a herder in May and sparking ethnic riots in Inner Mongolia.

The death penalty is ‘deeply rooted’ and ‘widely popular’ in Chinese culture, said San Francisco-based John Kamm, spokesman of the Dui Hua Foundation. An average 60-70% Chinese vote in favour of it on polls, he said.

The first stirring of a change in China’s mood on capital punishment came this summer with a small group of students and legal scholars speaking up against retributive justice as a pale pianist in a navy sweatshirt wept in court. Yao Jiaxin was executed eight months after he killed a woman.

India has executed one person since 1995.

The trial of Yao Jiaxin
“Our home is like hell,’’ tweeted Yao Qingwei in August. “My wife is incoherent. She often speaks to herself, regretting not cooking her child’s last meal.’’

He declined to speak to HT on the events since the night in Xian last October when his son Jiaxin’s new red Chevrolet hit Zhang Miao, 26, on her bike. As the mother of a toddler memorised the license plate number, the student stabbed her eight times to avoid arrest and compensation.

Yao Jiaxin unleashed a tsunami of online opinion favouring capital punishment and scorning the youth values of the new rich generation. Chinese tweets on the issue roused more passion than the statements from Indian political camps divided on mercy for the Gandhi killers.

“The motive was extremely despicable,’’ stated the Supreme People’s Court, rejecting his appeal. Yao’s execution drew over 1.35 million micro-blog posts.

Days later, a Yunnan murder convict with a death sentence revised to a two-year reprieve was back on death row under public pressure.

“Death penalty has a mass base in China,’’ argued Zhang Xian who represented Zhang’s family, recently on his micro-blog. He has over 80,000 online followers.

Anti-corruption dose
The non-elected Party wields the lethal injection to boost its legitimacy in the face of mounting public frustration against corruption. China is 79 on the Transparency International index despite imposing the ultimate anti-corruption dose. Some analysts speculate that undetected corruption in China may be worse than India’s, which ranks 84 on the index. An ex-railway minister who led China’s bullet train project is the latest top official under investigation.

“They select some officials as a model,’’ said Teng, “because it is not possible to arrest and punish all corrupt officials.”

In July, a former executive convicted of corruption in China Mobile, the world’s largest mobile phone operator, was sentenced to death with a two-year reprieve. Teng wrote recently that sentences are delivered under guidance of the Party discipline inspection departments and the code of criminal procedure is merely a ‘reference’.

“Since the 1980s, China continuously conducted crackdowns with many death sentences,’’ law professor He Weifang at Peking University told HT. “After every crackdown another crackdown needs to be carried out, which indicates that death penalty doesn’t work.”

Dip in the death count
Dui Hua estimates that about 5,000 Chinese were executed in 2009, including Briton Akmal Shaikh, an alleged drug dealer. Until this year when the 68 crimes punishable by death were pared to 55 — including 31 non-violent crimes — the Chinese could face death even for smuggling antiques. Low-profile criminals are sentenced under the shadow of secretive trials.

“I’ve seen many cases where the innocent are sentenced to death,’’ said Teng. “Sometimes the PSB (police) denies lawyers meetings with clients. And state-appointed lawyers may be incapable or dare not go against the court.’’

Professor He campaigns for abolishing the death penalty and disclosing official records on executions. It may happen, ‘maybe in 20 years,’ he said.

The Supreme People’s Court (SPC) recently said China aims to make more cases eligible for reprieve, but campaigners are sceptical.

“There have been several such high-level admonitions since the SPC resumed final review of death sentences in 2007,’’ noted Kamm.

“Death penalty cases declined until 2009 and stabilised in 2010. It’s difficult to see how they will be less than 5,000 in 2011.”

First Published: Sep 17, 2011 23:28 IST