Friday, June 27, 2008

Welcome Reduction in Use of Capital Punishment in China

According to a report in Friday's China Daily, in the first half of 2008, China's Supreme People's Court (SPC) overturned about 15 percent of the death sentences sent by provincial courts for final review. This news follows another report last month estimating that roughly 30 percent fewer death sentences were handed down in 2007 compared to the previous year.

Both of these revelations illustrate the impact of one of the most important reforms to take place in China's criminal justice system in recent years: the restoration on January 1, 2007, of the SPC's authority of final review over all death sentences in China.

Chinese legal officials, especially former SPC President Xiao Yang, deserve considerable credit for seeing this important reform to fruition. Facing serious practical challenges in guaranteeing that final reviews of capital cases are carried out in a consistent, timely fashion, SPC judges nevertheless have clearly made a priority of ensuring that the most serious punishment possible is only handed down when warranted by law, evidence, and the facts of the case.

Many Chinese legal experts believe that China should end—not just curb—its use of execution. Officially, the SPC appears to share this aspiration, but warns that the time is not yet right because of the deep-seated demand for retributive justice that reportedly still exists in Chinese society. But even if now is not the time for abolition, there are additional steps that China can—and should—take to further reduce its use of capital punishment.

China should increase the transparency of its system of capital punishment by releasing detailed statistics. China executes more people per year than the rest of the world combined. Dui Hua estimates that around 5,000 people were executed in China in 2007. We can make this statement based on a combination of published and anecdotal evidence despite the fact that the Chinese government closely guards its statistics on capital punishment on the grounds of "state secrecy." As the speakers at a recent press conference held in Hong Kong by the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty persuasively argued earlier this month, the attitude of the Chinese public about the necessity of retaining capital punishment might soften somewhat if more Chinese could know precisely how many people are executed on their behalf annually.

China should place stricter limits on the number of crimes eligible for the death penalty. China's criminal code allows criminals to be executed for more than 50 different crimes, many of which do not involve violence of any kind. China's use of capital punishment for "extremely serious or heinous crimes that lead to grave social consequences" is overly broad, including serious, but nonviolent crimes such as drug trafficking, official corruption, and disclosing state secrets abroad. If China is serious about moving towards abolition, it should remove these nonviolent crimes from the scope of application.

China should increase use of "suspended death sentences." Chinese law already provides for a punishment in which the death semtence is suspended for two years. After the two-year period expires, the case is reviewed by the court and, if the prisoner is not found to have committed any crimes during the intervening two years, the sentence is commuted to life imprisonment. As part of the effort to guide Chinese public opinion away from the expectation of death for serious crimes, Chinese courts should expand their use of this unique form of punishment.

To be sure, the substantial drop in the number of death sentences carried out in China is welcome news whose significance for preserving the dignity of human life should not be overlooked. Building on this important accomplishment to improve China's human rights situation further will require more bold, decisive actions and additional legislative and institutional reforms.

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Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Sentence Reductions for Political Prisoners More Than Previously Thought

Over the last two months, The Dui Hua Foundation has received information on a total of 19 Chinese prisoners convicted of subversion for attempting to establish four separate illegal political groups. The information was provided by multiple authoritative sources in the Chinese government that have proven reliable in the past.

Most of these individuals and the causes they led are not well-known, even within China. The groups (three political parties and one labor rights organization) were set up in Gansu, Chongqing, Henan, and Fujian, and were active in the period between 1999 and 2002. Despite the relative obscurity of these groups, Dui Hua researchers were able to collect sufficient information to recommend several leading members for inclusion on prisoner lists submitted as part of bilateral dialogues on human rights with Beijing as well as pursue several direct inquiries of its own.

Analysis of 19 Prisoners: Sentences and Prisoner Lists

Of the 19 individuals about whom Dui Hua has received information, 10 are still in prison. Five of the nine individuals who received sentence reductions have already been released from prison. Three of the nine who received no sentence reductions have been released after serving out their terms; the remaining six continue to serve their original sentences. One individual died shortly after being released on medical parole. (Please refer to the accompanying table for additional details.)

While it is difficult to draw firm conclusions from such a small sample, the information nevertheless suggests that there have been more sentence reductions for political prisoners in the last two years than previously believed. All of the sentence reductions and early releases in this group took place over the past two years, since the middle of 2006. The timing may be significant: Beijing informed the US government at the end of 2005 that prisoners serving sentences for endangering state security enjoyed the same access to sentence reduction and parole as prisoners convicted of other crimes. Around that time, a nationwide review of China's policies towards sentence reduction and parole was being conducted by the Ministry of Justice, the Supreme People's Court, and the Supreme People's Procuratorate. The review uncovered many irregularities in the application of sentence reduction and parole policies.

The information on this group of prisoners once again illustrates the impact of being asked about in a human rights dialogue with China's central government. Eight of the 19 individuals had their names on prisoner lists submitted to China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Of these, sentence reductions were granted to six prisoners, three of whom have since been released from prison. Of the 11 prisoners who were not on lists submitted in a dialogue, sentence reductions were given to only three prisoners, two of whom have been released.

The most recent prisoner information received by Dui Hua concerns a group in Fujian Province who were given long sentences in 2003 for allegedly attempting to form a labor rights organization. The group's leader, Li Jianfeng (李建峰), was given a 17-month sentence reduction in December 2007—he still has eight years to serve—and one of his two top lieutenants was released 10 months early, in May 2007.

Hu Shigen Case: String of Reductions Sets Up Impending Release

The news of the clemency granted to the Fujian labor activists comes shortly after confirmation that Hu Shigen (胡石根), a pro-democracy leader and labor organizer who is one of China's longest-serving counterrevolutionaries, received his third sentence reduction since December 2005. The latest reduction was granted on April 1, 2008, setting the date of Hu's expected release from Beijing Number Two Prison for August 26, 2008—nearly four years before the end of his original sentence. The former university lecturer was originally sentenced to 20 years in prison for counterrevolutionary propaganda and incitement and leading and organizing a counterrevolutionary group.

In Dui Hua's experience, the reductions to Hu's sentence are unusual in terms of their swift succession. According to the relevant regulations, a prisoner serving a sentence longer than 10 years should be eligible for a sentence reduction only every 18 months, but Hu's three reductions were spaced approximately 14 months apart.

Once more, this case shows the value of handing over prisoner lists to the Chinese government as part of the human rights dialogue, whether the names are of prominent prisoners like Hu or among the more obscure individuals profiled here.

Situation of Uyghur and Tibetan Political Prisoners

All of the sentence reductions reported to Dui Hua in recent months have been granted to Han prisoners convicted of endangering state security. Dui Hua is unaware of any recent sentence reductions granted to Uyghur or Tibetan prisoners convicted of political crimes. This is consistent with other news recently received by Dui Hua: that sentence reduction and parole for prisoners convicted of "splittism"—the criminal charge for separatist activity—are now being "strictly handled." This means that clemency is rarely granted to Tibetan and Uyghur political prisoners, who are almost solely involved in "splittism" cases.

Table: Political Prisoner Cases: Group Affiliation, Prisoner List Presence & Sentence Information (opens in new window)