Friday, August 28, 2009

Translation & Commentary: "The Death Penalty: When Will the 'Last Gunshot' Be Heard in China?"

A short piece published on August 27, 2009, in the Southern Weekend (南方周末, click on image below) and translated by Dui Hua (see end of this post), indicates that the Liaoning High People’s Court, and presumably the intermediate people’s courts under its jurisdiction, will completely replace execution by gunshot with lethal injection by the end of 2009. Information in the accompanying map shows that Liaoning will join seven other provinces and municipalities in making lethal injection the exclusive mode of capital punishment by next year. Lethal injection already has been fully adopted for executions carried out in Shanghai (implemented in 2001), Yunnan (2003), Zhejiang (2006), Henan (2009), and Shandong (2009); will be universal in Beijing (and Liaoning) by the end of 2009; and will be adopted for all executions in Chongqing in 2010.

The piece appears to be significant on a number of fronts. First, this vivid publication of facts constitutes a noteworthy level of transparency by judicial departments of the Chinese government, which regularly refuse to disclose even basic information on executions, regarded as state secrets. The increased use of lethal injection, which some observers in China view as a positive departure from China’s gruesome practice of execution by gunshot, may give the Chinese government reason to be more open about the way it conducts executions—if not about the number of prisoners executed. (Although China still executes more prisoners every year than the rest of the world combined, the number of executions has decreased steadily over the past decade and particularly since January 2007, when the Supreme People’s Court resumed the power of final review over all death sentences. Dui Hua estimates that China will execute approximately 5,000 people in 2009.)

Also of importance, the areas set to have adopted lethal injection as the only execution method by 2010 are home to approximately 30 percent of China’s population. The published map also points out 33 cities, municipalities, or prefectures throughout China—including provincial capitals and other heavily populated areas—that have begun using lethal injection. An interview with Supreme People’s Court Vice President Jiang Xingchang published in the China Daily in January 2008 revealed that half of China’s 404 intermediate people’s courts—which carry out most but not all executions—used lethal injection (though not necessarily exclusively) at that time. Judge Jiang stated that it will eventually be used by all intermediate people’s courts, though no timetable was given.

The adoption of lethal injection in China is a recent phenomenon that has spread at a relatively rapid rate. It came about after domestic and international pressure for reform. In the 1980s, the United Nations passed a series of conventions calling for more humane practices for implementing the death penalty, and many countries, including China, moved away from execution by gunshot. In 1996, China amended its Criminal Procedure Law to allow for execution by either gunshot or lethal injection, with China’s first lethal injection officially being carried out in Kunming, Yunnan, in 1997. In a 2008 interview (Chinese only, included in a lengthy article on lethal injection) with The Beijing News (PDF of translated interview by Dui Hua), Wang Jun, director of the Forensic Division of the Kunming Intermediate People’s Court and the person in charge of the first lethal injection, explains that he and his team formulated China’s lethal injection procedure from scratch. Also in 1997, the Supreme People’s Court began to institute a trial program of lethal injection in other areas, and in September of 2001, the Supreme People’s Court further mandated that all courts above the intermediate level work to institute lethal injection.

Publication of the Southern Weekend piece follows closely on the heels of another recent revelation about capital punishment in China: On August 26, the China Daily reported “expert” statements that condemned prisoners comprise 65 percent of organ transplant donors. According to the article, there were about 10,000 organ transplants in China in 2008
a rare admission that the number of executions in China numbers is in the thousands. In the same article, Vice Minister of Health Huang Jiefu stated that executed prisoners “are definitely not a proper source for organ transplants.” For those who remain concerned about organ harvesting in China, however, part of the final sentence in the translation below—“all criminals sentenced to death will soon enjoy this mode of execution that preserves the body’s tissues and organs”—offers cold comfort that the harvesting of organs from executed prisoners will soon be a thing of the past.


The Death Penalty: When Will the “Last Gunshot” Be Heard in China?
Southern Weekend, August 27, 2009

Recently, the Liaoning High People’s Court indicated that, by the end of this year, it would replace execution by gunshot with lethal injection. In 1997, Kunming, Yunnan, was the first place in China to use lethal injection, and in 2001, the Supreme People’s Court required courts throughout China to promote the use of lethal injection; these are two nodes in the history of capital punishment in China. In the course of promoting [lethal injection], two phenomena have emerged—“let some areas inject first” and “let some people (primarily corrupt officials sentenced to death) be injected first.” The latter aroused widespread controversy, and was seen as the final exercise of the privilege of corrupt officials and a violation of the legal principle that “all are equal before the law.” However, as use of lethal injection has spread fully throughout China and the time nears when the death penalty’s “last gunshot” will be heard, all criminals sentenced to death will soon enjoy this mode of execution that preserves the body’s tissues and organs: less suffering and blood, more dignity and humanity.

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