Wed, Mar 01, 2006 - Page 5 News List

Execution culture hard to change

DETERRENT?The state has sanctioned the killing of petty criminals in China for years, and although things are improving, reform is proving too slow for some


According to academic sources, China carries out an estimated 8,000 executions every year, more than in the rest of the world combined.

Many of the condemned do not have a defense lawyer during their trial. Many others are executed for non-violent crimes.

Others are tortured during interrogation. Some are innocent.

The exact number of annual executions remains a "state secret," according to Professor Liu Renwen (劉仁文), vice director of the Law Institute at the Academy of Social Science and an opponent of capital punishment.

"It is very stupid. How can we achieve useful reform [of the judicial system] if we don't even know the exact number [of executions]?" Liu said.

But the professor deemed the figure of 8,000 executions per year as realistic.

In the early 1990's it must have been even more than 10,000 executions annually, he opined, because the number is said to have decreased by 40 to 50 percent since 1997, when China abolished capital punishment for theft.

But there are at present still 68 crime categories for which Chinese courts are obliged to hand down the death sentence, carried out either by a bullet to the back of the head or by lethal injection.

More than half of these are not even considered violent crimes. Among them are corruption, economic crimes and real estate crimes.

State media were recently allowed to report about several selected judicial errors, among them the case of a butcher who was convicted and executed for the murder of a waitress who later turned out to be still alive.

Professor Liu judged these reports as an indications that a "number of problems" still exist in the capital justice system.

In order to mete out better judgment, China's Supreme Court recently decided to handle the appeals of all death sentences by itself.

Liu estimated that by this measure future executions will decrease by 20 percent.

The Supreme Court has established three new departments to handle the flood of appeals against death sentences, particularly in Beijing.

But Supreme Court judges have already encountered "difficulties" in their task in the provinces.

"Everybody wants to maintain their power," Liu commented about the resistance of provincial governments to reform.

"They believe [the death penalty] is a good tool for them to control public security," he said.

On the issue of foreign complaints that internal organs of executed people were removed and used for transplantations, the professor said that this was officially prohibited, but that there were exceptions if there were patients with an urgent need for a transplant or if the condemned agreed to such a procedure.

Unfortunately, practice seems to defy theory, as Liu was told by members of the judiciary who described organ removal as "a serious problem that needs to be discussed."

Courts had "close ties" with hospitals who paid lots of money for organs.

"This doesn't happen openly. Perhaps there is some corruption involved," he said.

Liu argued that the money for the organs should at least be paid to the families of those executed.

The professor fights against the traditional conviction amongst the Chinese public that the death penalty serves as a means to deter crime.

"But the death penalty carries indeed no such deterrent function, and we really should abolish it altogether," he said.

However, Liu appears to be ahead of his time, because he admitted: "I don't think that Chinese society has yet accepted this idea."

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