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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Thursday, August 6, 2009

Chan Yu-lam Sentence Reduction Sheds Light on How Prisoners Are Rewarded for Good Behavior

Chan Yu-lam (陈瑜琳), a Hong Kong resident and naturalized British citizen convicted of espionage in 2004, was granted an 18-month sentence reduction on June 5, 2009, The Dui Hua Foundation has learned from an informed source in China.

A former foreign affairs official at the Xinhua News Agency, the Chinese government's de facto representative office in Hong Kong before 1997, Chan was originally sentenced to life in prison after prosecutors charged him with passing secrets to an alleged British agent. Several other former Xinhua employees were arrested simultaneously in connection with what Chinese officials at the time claimed to be a "Hong Kong spy ring," though no clear links between the detainees have ever been independently confirmed.

In August 2007, Chan’s sentence was commuted to a 19½-year fixed-term sentence. As a result of this latest reduction, he is due to be released from Shaoguan Prison in Guangdong Province on August 14, 2025.

Additional Clemency May Be Expected

Chan Yu-lam’s case illustrates how Chinese regulations enable individuals serving long prison terms to reduce their sentences gradually through “showing regret” or “acts of meritorious service.” Based on provisions of the system established in Guangdong in 2005, Chan appears to have had his sentence reduced at intervals and by lengths that indicate that he has been a model prisoner so far, suggesting that further reductions may be expected in the future.

Each provincial-level prison administration bureau in China establishes slightly different systems to reward inmate behavior, but inmates generally earn points for participating in assigned labor, obeying prison rules and other disciplinary measures, participating in education, and maintaining a positive attitude towards reform. Conversely, points are deducted for rule infractions, failure to participate in labor, or a poor attitude towards reform.

Of all of the criteria that go into judging whether a prisoner has shown regret, “acknowledging one’s crime and submitting to the law” is among the most important. The Chinese penal system’s emphasis on acknowledging guilt is something that UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Manfred Nowak singled out for particular concern (PDF) following his inspection of Chinese prisons and detention centers in 2005. In his report, Nowak notes, “Convicted prisoners who have not confessed to their crimes are put under special education systems and are deprived of certain rights and privileges which converted prisoners enjoy, such as family visits, access to a telephone or the incentive of reduced sentences.” Prisoners who protest their convictions on procedural grounds may also face parole stigmatization, since prisoners’ continued efforts to petition higher courts to retry their cases can reflect negatively on their attitude, even though all relevant regulations make clear that inmates’ right to petition should be protected.

At the end of each evaluation period, inmates who accumulate a certain number of points are eligible to receive merit awards. Additional awards are granted to top point-earners in each cell block, and prisoners also compete for special recognition at the prison- and provincial levels. After accumulating a certain number of these merit awards, inmates may apply to the prison to recommend that a court issue a sentence reduction on grounds of good behavior or in recognition of various types of meritorious service. “Detailed rules for implementation” (实施细则) issued at the provincial level regulate the conditions, length, and frequency with which sentence reductions may be granted. Provincial courts have also issued general opinions governing how courts evaluate applications for sentence reduction and parole. Most of these rules and regulations were issued subsequent to a 2004 nationwide campaign aimed at cracking down on irregularities in the granting of sentence reduction, parole, and medical parole.

“Strict Handling” for State Security Prisoners

Under these rules, sentence reductions for individuals convicted of “endangering state security”—along with underworld gang members, core “cult” members, recidivists, and repeat drug offenders—should be “strictly handled.” In Guangdong, at least, this means delaying commencement of sentence reductions for these prisoners by six months relative to “ordinary” inmates who are similarly qualified, and cutting the length of the initial reduction by at least six months relative to what it would be otherwise. Regulations also stipulate that prisoners convicted of endangering state security should “generally not be granted parole.”

In the case of Chan Yu-lam, whose crime of espionage falls under the category of endangering state security, the commutation of his life sentence was granted nearly three years after he first entered prison. (Guangdong’s regulations [Chinese only] specify that prisoners serving life sentences must wait at least two years before they receive their first reduction, and it is not uncommon for new inmates to go through a period when they accumulate fewer points and merits as they adjust to life in prison.) Assuming that six months was cut from Chan’s reduction because of his status as a prisoner to be “strictly handled,” the decision to reduce his sentence to a fixed-term sentence of 19½ years suggests that his behavior qualified as “outstanding” (突出). The decision to reduce his sentence 22 months later by 18 months is also indicative of “outstanding” behavior, based on the regulations in force in Guangdong. If the schedule proceeds in strict accord with these regulations, Chan can next expect to have his sentence reduced in the first quarter of 2011.

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