Monday, March 28, 2011

Stage Set for Filipino Executions, Legal Basis for Delay Still Unclear

On March 23, the Department of Foreign Affairs of the Philippines announced that it had been notified that three Filipinos sentenced to death in China on drug smuggling charges would be executed on March 30.

The notice, formally communicated by the Fujian High People's Court and Guangdong High People's Court to the Philippine consulates general in Xiamen and Guangzhou, clarified the status of the three, identified as Ramon Credo, Elizabeth Batain, and Sally Villanueva.

The three death row prisoners, convicted of trying to smuggle several kilograms of heroin to China, had originally been scheduled for execution in late February but won a temporary reprieve when the Supreme People's Court (SPC) reportedly agreed to postpone the executions after Philippine Vice President Jejomar Binay traveled to Beijing to plead on their behalf.

Earlier this month, China's ambassador to the Philippines, Liu Jianchao, made clear that the verdicts were final and the executions would take place "sooner or later."

A presidential spokesman described the decision to stay the executions as "unprecedented" and acknowledged that officials in Manila understood from the beginning that the executions were only to be postponed.

Just how "unprecedented" was the decision? That depends in part on the justification behind it, which remains opaque. To the extent that news about the cases has been reported in the Chinese media (here, for example), it has been on the basis of reports from the Phillipine side. To date, neither the Supreme People's Court nor the provincial high courts in Fujian or Guangdong have offered any official explanation regarding the legal basis for the delay.

According to Article 211 of the Criminal Procedure Law, executions approved by the Supreme People's Court are supposed to be carried out within seven days. The law sets out three circumstances under which an execution may be halted, once the SPC order has been issued: discovery of an error in the court's judgment, revelation of major crimes or other meritorious behavior that could affect sentencing, or pregnancy. It is unclear which of these conditions applied in this instance.

Temporary stays of execution are not routinely reported in the Chinese media, but they are not unheard of. A few weeks ago, it was reported that the Zhuhai Intermediate People's Court in Guangdong had halted the execution of a man in January 2010 after he made a final claim that he had not committed the fatal robbery for which he had been convicted. The court empaneled judges to investigate the man's claims and, after finding them not credible, finally carried out the execution on March 16.

Some have speculated that China's decision to delay execution of the Filipinos was a response to various "gestures" made by the Philippine government, such as the decision not to send a representative to last December's Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in Oslo and the extradition of Taiwanese criminal suspects to China.

If the executions were halted for diplomatic or humanitarian, rather than legal reasons, this is not necessarily a bad thing. It would, however, be out of keeping with the way Chinese courts normally profess to operate "in strict accordance with the law." For that reason it would be enlightening to have the SPC itself come forward to explain the unusual circumstances surrounding this case in order and inject some transparency into the proceedings.