Concerns Grow Over Executions in China

Times Staff Writer

Zhang Huanzhi, 61, hugs a small mound of dirt that holds her son’s ashes. Tears and mucous stream from her face as she cries out in pain: Why us, why our boy, why such injustice?

A few months ago, a state-run newspaper reported that someone else had confessed to the rape and murder for which her son had been executed. For years, few had listened as she insisted that Nie Shubin, 20, had been tortured into a false confession, then convicted after a two-hour trial. The only evidence of any note, she says, was the account of a witness who saw someone near the crime scene riding a blue bicycle. Nie owned a blue bicycle.

“If his bicycle were red, or black, he’d be alive today,” Zhang said.

Cases such as Nie’s have cast a harsh spotlight on China’s widespread, and often questionable, use of the death penalty. Now, amid pressure from lawyers, academics, the United Nations and many countries, the government is undertaking a reevaluation.


On Tuesday, government media reported that the Supreme People’s Court would regain the authority it lost in 1983 to oversee capital cases. The change in the early 1980s was driven by a desire for speedy justice. According to the China Youth Daily, the nation’s highest court is adding three criminal trial courts to handle death penalty review cases in a “truly neutral” fashion.

Legal scholars estimate that this change could reduce executions by 30%. The current system has seen provincial judges order up the death penalty at a fast and furious pace.

Comprehensive death penalty statistics remain a state secret, although local jurisdictions will announce executions when that serves a political purpose. Human rights groups, however, say China executes more people than the rest of the world’s governments combined.

Amnesty International found evidence of 3,400 death sentences carried out in 2004 but says the real number may be closer to 10,000 a year. This compares with 59 in the U.S. in 2004. More than 70 countries use the death penalty, but most apply it only in the case of a few extremely violent crimes. China executes people for 68 offenses, many nonviolent, including smuggling, tax evasion, corruption, “endangering national security” and separatism, which includes advocating Tibetan or Taiwanese independence.

The state-run press has called for a “kill fewer, kill carefully” approach, perhaps as early as next year. More broadly, the Communist Party hopes a credible legal system will help channel public frustration through the courts rather than into public demonstrations.

Nie’s two-hour trial, followed a few months later by his execution, was not unusual. Reports suggest some capital trials last less than an hour. Lu Shile, accused of murder in the northeastern city of Qingdao, was convicted late last year, had his appeal denied and was executed within 24 days, an outcome the Qingdao Evening News praised as “rapid and highly efficient.”


In theory, cases not involving state secrets, minors or privacy are open to the public. In practice, judges generally close their courts to outside scrutiny.

As in many other countries, prosecutors and police bring cases before a judge. But critics say evidence-gathering, sentencing and legal procedures are often wobbly. There are no juries, police have enormous latitude, and forensics or other independent experts are rarely used. Whether a suspect lives or dies can depend on timing, location and the political winds. Neighboring provinces sometimes hand down dramatically different sentences for the same crime.

“If you put political stress on an already shaky system and just go for results, the risk of abrogation of justice and disproportionate sentencing is significantly higher,” said Nicholas Becquelin, Hong Kong-based research director for Human Rights in China.

Chinese executioners tend to be particularly busy before major Communist Party meetings, the U.N.-declared anti-drug day, crime crackdowns and year-end holidays, with the state press touting executions as conducive to a “safe, joyful and happy new year.”

The system is heavily stacked against defendants.

Connections, not legal expertise, often determine who becomes a judge, and corruption is a constant concern. In addition, appeals are rarely successful because they are heard by the same court that issued the original sentence.

On paper, suspects are innocent until proven guilty. In practice, legal scholars say, the government is generally assumed to be correct. Chinese law lacks manslaughter or first-, second- and third-degree gradations for murder, so the death penalty often is the only option.

Legal aid is virtually nonexistent. Even those able to afford lawyers aren’t allowed to meet with them until after the police interrogation, which can last weeks or even months, with guards often listening in.

Lawyers also say defending their client too effectively subjects them to arrest, harassment and disbarment under Article 306, a statute barring evidence tampering that the state has employed against attorneys.

“Lawyers can be accused of doing their job,” said Nicola Macbean, executive director of the Rights Practice, a London-based development group.

The system also places emphasis on confessions, with torture a constant threat, human rights groups say.

China announced recently that several hundred police officers had been reprimanded for “improper methods,” a first admission of the scale of the problem. “The fact that people are executed every day under a system so recognizably flawed is unbelievable,” said Ben Carrdus, a researcher with Amnesty International.

In a recent reform, China introduced a national law exam for judges and imposed a 12-hour limit on police interrogation, down from 36 hours. And in April, the top appeals court in the southwestern province of Sichuan issued what it billed as the first ruling in China barring confessions obtained through torture.

China’s 1979 criminal statutes, which stipulated that executions be carried out with a bullet to the head, were amended in 1996 to include lethal injection. In the late 1990s, China pioneered the use of mobile lethal-injection vans. Reports suggest their use is particularly common during anti-drug campaigns in the southern province of Yunnan.

Reports persist of public executions, although much less frequently than in the past. Last year, students as young as 6 joined 2,500 spectators in a gymnasium in Changsha, the capital of Hunan province in central China, to watch the execution of six men, according to a Chinese Internet report.

China spends $87 per execution, including transportation, cremation, bullets and death notices, according to a 2003 report on the government-run Xinhuanet website. The condemned have ranged in age from 18 to 87.

The treatment of people’s bodies after their execution is also an issue. Human rights groups have long accused China of using organs without consent from the families of those executed.

In 2000, the mother of convicted murderer Yu Yonggang sued the government in Shanxi province, claiming the court and local medical authorities stole her son’s organs after his execution. Another case in Gansu province that year resulted in the award of $250 to a family for a similar theft, according to the Lanzhou Morning Post.

Pro-reform Chinese legal scholars have appealed to the nation’s pocketbook, arguing that many countries balk at extraditing corrupt officials given the possibility of a death sentence. The Commerce Ministry estimates that 4,000 corrupt officials have fled with $50 billion in stolen funds since the early 1980s.

State-controlled media have also started publicizing more embarrassing cases. In June, newspapers reported that a farmer in the central province of Hubei who, after 10 days of nonstop interrogation, confessed to killing his wife, had to be released when she showed up alive.

Beijing has made it clear that death penalty limits would only go so far. Corruption, bribery and national security violations would remain capital offenses, a senior official said.

Further delay increases the chance of more wrongful executions, legal scholars say, and more of the sort of pain that Nie’s family has suffered.

As a child, Nie was shy, kind and nonconfrontational, friends and family members say.

One day he kicked over a water bucket, his mother recalls. When she accused him of doing it intentionally, he took his punishment stoically before she realized it had been an accident.

“He was almost too gentle for this world,” Zhang said.

After high school, Nie got a job as a welder at a nearby factory. One day in September 1994, police showed up at work and arrested him. He was accused of raping and murdering Kang Juhua, 38, a neighboring villager whose badly decomposed body was found in a cornfield.

Nie’s family was not allowed to visit him in prison or talk to him after his arrest. Nie reportedly told his lawyer that he was interrogated and beaten by police for six days. His mother says when she caught a glimpse of him being dragged into the courthouse, one arm was twisted at an unnatural angle. Local, municipal and provincial police said they didn’t recall the case.

The family learned of his execution in early 1995 only after a prison guard told them to stop wasting their time bringing soap and toothbrushes because their son was dead already. A newspaper account at the time said: “After a weeklong investigation in which the police applied smart, psychological techniques, officers finally got the accused to admit the crime.”

“How can you call these ‘smart techniques’?” his mother, Zhang, asks.

The incident tore the family apart. Zhang’s husband attempted suicide with sleeping pills and, after recovering, suffered a mental breakdown.

“There’s no justice in China,” Nie Xuesheng said, alternately shouting and whimpering. “My son can’t just die like this. This system is corrupt.”

Word of their son’s presumed innocence came early this year when a migrant worker, Wang Shujin, confessed to raping six women, four of whom he said he killed, including Kang, according to the state-run Henan Business News. Wang’s case is still working its way through the courts, although legal experts say it’s almost certain he will receive the death penalty.

Nie’s family, meanwhile, is caught in legal limbo. The court says an execution certificate is required to reopen the case, but the family says it never received one, nor was it required at the time.

“I feel so powerless,” Zhang says. “I had a beautiful, happy family, a good husband, everything seemed so perfect. Then our whole world came apart.”