Amnesty Criticizes China for Death Penalty Secrecy

today released its global report “Death Sentences and Executions: 2016.” While the report found a global 37% decrease in executions last year compared to 2015, it notes that “these numbers do not include the thousands of executions carried out in China, where data on the use of the remained classified as a state secret.” The international human rights organization also released a separate report, entitled “China’s Deadly Secrets,” which directly criticizes Beijing for the opacity surrounding the state use of the death penalty, and challenges authorities to prove commitment to their stated goal of reducing use of the death penalty by publishing annual figures on issued death sentences and executions carried out. From the executive summary of the latter report:

The Chinese government continues to conceal the extent to which capital punishment is being used in China, despite more than four decades of requests from UN bodies and the international community and despite the Chinese authorities’ own pledges to bring about increased openness in the country’s criminal justice system. This deliberate and elaborate secrecy system, which runs counter to China’s obligations under international law, conceals the number of people sentenced to death and executed every year, both of which Amnesty International estimates run into the thousands.

All statistics on the use of the death penalty in China remain classified in law as and authorities continue to evade answering questions about this systematic concealing of the death penalty system. The government has claimed that such statistics are not available or, contradictorily, that they are actually available in government work reports. The latter claim is misleading, since death sentences were deliberately lumped together with data on other sentences, with no breakdown by type of sentence, thus making it impossible to know how many death sentences were handed out each year.

[…] This reform [“killing fewer, killing cautiously” (少杀慎杀), launched in 2006] along with others to strengthen procedural safeguards, has been cited by experts – and sometimes the government itself – as significant factors that may have indeed led to reducing the number of death sentences and executions. Yet the true extent of the use of the death penalty in China remains almost entirely unknown.

[…] Put simply, the government’s claims to have reduced its use of the death penalty have not yet been supported by any concrete evidence. Furthermore, there are no guarantees that the reforms adopted so far, even if they had led to a decrease in the number of executions, will prove effective in the long term or that they could not be reversed at some point in the future.

Amnesty International therefore renews its challenge to the Chinese authorities to prove that they are achieving their goal of reducing the application of the death penalty by publishing annual figures to document the number of death sentences handed down and executions carried out. [Source]

Despite the lack of statistics, Amnesty estimates that China carried out more executions in 2016 than all other countries combined. From an Amnesty press release:

Excluding China, states around the world executed 1,032 people in 2016. China executed more than all other countries in the world put together, while the USA reached a historic low in its use of the death penalty in 2016.

[…] “China wants to be a leader on the world stage, but when it comes to the death penalty it is leading in the worst possible way – executing more people annually than any other country in the world,” said Salil Shetty, Secretary General of Amnesty International.

[…] China’s database contains only a tiny fraction of the thousands of death sentences that Amnesty International estimates are handed out every year in China, reflecting the fact that the Chinese government continues to maintain almost total secrecy over the number of people sentenced to death and executed in the country.

[…] “China is a complete outlier in the world community when it comes to the death penalty, out of step with international legal standards and in contravention with repeated UN requests to report how many people it executes[,” said Shetty.] [Source]

At The Guardian, Benjamin Haas reports further on Amnesty’s criticism of China’s use of the death penalty, and continued secrecy surrounding it, citing Amnesty officials on the report’s findings:

Nicholas Bequelin, Amnesty’s east Asia director, said: “It is time for China to stop being a rogue state in the international community with respect to the death penalty and finally allow the Chinese people to have a proper, informed debate about capital punishment in the country.”

[…] The Chinese government claims it has reduced the use of the death penalty and taken steps under a policy of “killing fewer, killing cautiously”. As part of this, the county’s top court must now approve death sentences handed out by lower courts.

But without concrete statistics, activists say there is no way to verify government claims. “There is absolutely no way to tell if death sentences are going up or down in China,” Bequelin said. “Members of the international community have become very complacent on taking China’s word at face value.”

For years, China has rebuffed requests by the United Nations for more data on executions and ignored UN resolutions to increase . [Source]

Haas’ coverage notes that Uyghurs accounted for 4% of Amnesty’s estimated executions, despite making up only .7% of China’s total population. Uyghurs’ home region of Xinjiang is currently the frontline of a nationwide “war against terrorism,” and has seen a series of “strike-hard” policies in recent years including public sentencing rallies where death penalties have been handed out.

Last December, the Supreme People’s Court officially exonerated Nie Shubin, who was falsely convicted and executed over 21 years ago for rape and murder. Nie’s posthumous exoneration ushered in a host of criticism of China’s justice system. AFP quotes Chinese legal scholar Jerome Cohen, who evoked a quote from Mao Zedong on the inevitability of mistakes when implementing the death penalty:

“[…C]oerced confessions are supposed to be excluded from evidence. In practise, however, the police have unchallenged discretion to…extract confessions by detaining and torturing suspects for long periods,” New York University professor Jerome Cohen told AFP.

“Yet even the late Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong, perhaps the greatest executioner in human history, recognised the likelihood of mistakes when imposing the death penalty,” Cohen noted.

“Mao admonished his officials to bear in mind that, once someone?s head is cut off, it cannot grow back.”

A 2016 report from the US-based Dui Hua Foundation said China’s average death row prisoner waits only two months for execution. [Source]

The Washington Post’s Simon Denyer quotes Amnesty’s William Nee, who notes another high profile posthumous exoneration (that of Huugjilt, who was executed in 1996 and exonerated in 2014) and warns that short of greater transparency from Chinese authorities, it’s impossible to know the extent of unjust executions in China:

In late 2014, another man, known as Huugjilt or Hujilit, was also cleared of rape and murder 18 years after he had been put to death as an 18-year-old. After 48 hours of interrogation, he had confessed to the crime and was executed two months later. But doubt was cast on the verdict in 2005 when an alleged serial killer confessed to murdering the woman.

Both cases attracted significant public outrage against the authorities, and sympathy for the unjustly executed men.

“There have been a few high-profile exonerations in recent years — of Hujilit and — but without greater transparency, the Chinese public will have no idea how many cases like ’s there really are,” Nee said. [Source]

Coverage from Quartz’ Zheping Huang notes that Amnesty’s analysis found that rural farmers and the unemployed are the most likely to be sentenced to death:

Amnesty searched the database with the keyword “死刑,” the only term that Chinese courts would use for “death penalty,” and analyzed rulings by the top court, to avoid duplicate occurrences of the same case at lower court levels. Launched in 2013, China Judgements Online had made over 20 million documents public by August 2016, according to the SPC.

The partial dataset showed that the majority of the people whose death sentences were confirmed were either farmers or unemployed. Farmers made up 55% of the total sentences, while 43% of China’s population is rural. Meanwhile, the unemployed formed about a quarter of the death sentences; according to official data the unemployment rate is near 4%.

[…T]he available data shows troubling patterns, Amnesty said. The fact that “there are so many farmers and migrant workers being sentenced to death would probably indicate that, as in line with the experience of other countries, relatively poorer people are more likely to be subjected to the death penalty, or are perhaps less able to afford adequate and effective legal representation,” said Nee. [Source]

Last November, China carried out the highly controversial death penalty of farmer Jia Jinglong, who in 2015 killed a village official who had ordered his home demolished. Jia’s sentence triggered a national conversation about both social injustice and the death penalty. The New York Times’ Chris Buckley covers Amnesty’s criticism in the context of Jia Jinglong’s unpopular execution:

Court verdicts for Mr. Jia, the executed farmer, are among those that do appear in the open court records. One of his lawyers, Gan Yuanchun, said he had noticed a drop in death sentences in recent years and had successfully pleaded for reducing death sentences to prison terms in dozens of cases.

“There’s been an improvement in transparency in enforcement of the death penalty, but total numbers are still not disclosed,” Mr. Gan said by telephone.

But Mr. Jia’s case showed Chinese courts still lacked accountability, he said. The courts had ignored the evidence that Mr. Jia had been wronged by the official, who did not give him due compensation for his demolished home, Mr. Gan said. (The Supreme People’s Court publicly defended its decision to approve the execution.)

“Of course, that’s not an excuse to kill someone,” Mr. Gan said. “But in using the death penalty, you should consider the misdeeds of the victim.” [Source]