Tuesday, 31 July 2007

China: Courts claim fewer executions

China's official media have reported a reduction in executions this year -- but once again the government refused to release meaningful statistics about the use of the death penalty.

China Daily reported that figures from Beijing No 1 and No 2 intermediate people's courts showed a 10 per cent drop in the first five months of this year compared with the same period last year.

Court spokesperson Ni Shouming said the situation was similar across the country, but he "declined to give details".

The newspaper said in an editorial that the "remarkable drop" showed the return to Supreme Court review had achieved its aim "to rein in irresponsible use of capital punishment" by local courts.

China Daily said the change came "after the Supreme People's Court recovered the right to review and approve all death sentences decided by local courts in the country".

From 1 January 2007, all death sentences handed down by provincial courts must be reviewed by the Supreme People's Court.

Official statistics quoted in the China Daily report showed nearly 890,000 people were convicted by all levels of courts across China, with nearly 154,000 receiving sentences longer than five years.

But these figures were useless for assessing the use of the death penalty, since they included custodial sentences over five years, life terms and executions.

'Trend towards leniency'
Criminal law expert Chen Weidong, from Renmin University of China, predicted death sentences would drop by 20 per cent over this year.

"Leniency and more judicious use of capital punishment is the trend of the time, a concept in line with international practice," he said.

Chen Zexian, deputy director of the Institute of Law of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, told China Daily that China would ultimately abolish the death penalty, but "it has to start from strict limits on the use of death penalties".

"It takes a long time for society to accept the abolition of the death penalty," he said.

China Daily's editorial said the implementation of a new approach to criminal law incorporated "both leniency and severity - with the accent on leniency".

This was "a break from China's traditional emphasis on harshness in law enforcement".

"The general appeal for leniency in criminal justice and, more specifically, the call for prudent use of the death sentence are both indications of civilized law enforcement," the newspaper said.

"But a more direct cause for the decline in the number of death sentences in the past months could well be the new requirement that all such verdicts be scrutinized by the Supreme Court."

'Political interference remains'
Human Rights Watch said while there appeared to be a drop in executions in China, the country still executed between 7,000 and 15,000 people a year.

Nicholas Becquelin, a China researcher with the organisation, said police and political interference was still common in the courts.

He told VOA News that recent efforts to cut the number of executions were also motivated by a desire to clean up the country's image before the 2008 Olympics.

"The number of death penalty [cases] and the sort of callousness in which the Chinese government executes people is regularly one of the top black spots on China's image in the international community," he said.

"And, with the Olympic Games coming closer and closer, this is definitely something that the Chinese authorities want to be seen as acting over."

Related stories:
China call for cautious death penalty - again -- 8 April, 2007
China: Judges try to limit death penalty -- 14 November, 2006
China reforms good, but not enough -- 8 November, 2006
China: Supreme Court review from January -- 1 November, 2006
Political questions over China's new appeal judges -- 2 July, 2006
China to video death penalty appeals -- 28 May 2006
China to retain death penalty, with reforms -- 13 March 2006

Friday, 27 July 2007

China handed evidence for murder trial

Chinese officials spent this week in Canberra collecting evidence to prosecute a student for an alleged murder committed in the Australian capital in 2004.

Zhang Long is facing trial in China for the murder of his girlfriend, Zhang Hongjie (also known as Steffi Zhang). Her body was found in their Canberra apartment in January 2005, six months after she was believed to have been strangled.

Police in the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) announced on Thursday that they had handed a brief of evidence and physical exhibits to a visiting delegation of seven police and public security officials.

The handover was the culmination of more than a year's careful negotiation with Chinese authorities.

The ACT government refused to hand over evidence in the case until China gave an undertaking the death penalty would not be imposed if he was convicted of murder. China refused to extradite Zhang to Australia to face trial.

In November 2006 The Canberra Times reported the breakthrough when China agreed to guarantee it would not execute the accused if he was found guilty.

AAP reported Zhang had been in custody in the Chinese city of Dalian since March 2005.

Under Australian law, an international request for assistance in criminal cases can be refused where that assistance may result in the death penalty.

Related stories:
No execution for Canberra murder: Report -- 15 December, 2006
Australia China talks over murder case -- 04 April, 2006

Thursday, 12 July 2007

China executes drug regulator

The former head of China's drug regulator was executed last Tuesday (10 July) for receiving bribes and approving fake drugs, according to state-run Xinhua newsagency.

Zheng Xiaoyu, who was director of the State Food and Drug Administration (SFDA), was sentenced to death in Beijing on 29 May for corruption and dereliction of duty.

He had been convicted of accepting 6.49 million yuan (US$850,000) in bribes from pharmaceutical companies. Xinhua said Zheng, 63, accepted cash bribes and gifts directly, as well as through his wife and son.

During his time as head of the agency, he broke reporting and decision-making processes for approving medicines, allowing six fake drugs onto the market, and failed to adequately oversee drug production.

The Higher People's Court of Beijing rejected his first appeal on 22 June, rejecting Zheng's appeal that the penalty was "too severe" and his argument he had cooperated with the investigation.

"The evidence provided by Zheng was obtained by the prosecution team before his confession," said the court.

The Supreme People's Court (SPC) ratified the death sentence, clearing the way for Zheng's execution.

"The judgement made by the first and second [court] hearings was authentic, the evidence was complete and the death sentence was appropriate," the SPC said.

"Zheng"s dereliction of duty has undermined the efficiency of China's drug monitoring and supervision, endangered public life and health and has had a very negative social impact."

The Chinese government has acted in recent years to ease public concern about official corruption, with three other senior officials sentenced to death since 2000.

Cao Wenzhuang, the former head of the SFDA's drug registration department, was also given a suspended death sentence last week.

"The execution of Zheng demonstrated the resolve of the government to punish corrupt officials, and those with high positions and strong power are punished without mercy," said Zhao Bingzhi, director the Criminal Law Institute of the China Law Society.

The SFDA said it was introducing new procedures for approving drugs following the two convictions.

"We should seriously reflect and learn from these cases. We should fully protect public food and drug safety.

"The new drug registration regulation, which will come out soon, will ensure the transparency of the drug approval procedure," said SFDA spokeswoman Yan Jiangying.

Execution hampering return
China has been attempting to negotiate extradition treaties with a number of countries in order to bring back corrupt officials who have fled overseas.

But it has found its use of the death penalty for economic crimes posed a barrier in negotiations with countries that do not use the death penalty.

In March this year, China successfully concluded an extradition treaty with France, which, along with earlier treaties with Spain and Portugal, guarantees that suspects returned to face trial would not be given the death penalty.

Sunday, 8 July 2007

Asian activists condemn drug executions

An Asian network of anti-death penalty activists has condemned the region's widespread use of the death penalty for drug offences, despite there being "no convincing evidence" the punishment provides a greater level of deterrence.

The Anti-Death Penalty Asia Network (ADPAN) released a statement on United Nations Anti-Drugs Day, 26 June, expressing its "growing concern that more people are sentenced to death for drug offences than for any other crime in a number of Asia Pacific countries".

"This is at a time when there is a worldwide trend towards restricting and abolishing the death penalty."

Sixteen Asia Pacific countries continued to apply the death penalty for drug trafficking and possession offences, said ADPAN.

The network recognised that governments should take "appropriate law-enforcement measures" against drug trafficking and crime, including meeting their obligations under international drug control treaties.

"However there is no convincing evidence that the death penalty deters would-be drug traffickers more than any other punishment," it said.

'Not deterring'
The statement said Amnesty International did not know of any evidence that the death penalty had lead to a drop in drug use or trafficking in any of the sixteen countries.

"In China for example, police data shows that the number of drug users grew 35 percent in the five years since 2000.

"In Viet Nam, the BBC quoted an official who said in 2005 the quantity of drugs seized by customs had increased 400 percent year-on-year, despite its use of the death penalty."

Secret, mandatory, guilty
It also condemned the secrecy, mandatory sentences and discrimination that exacerbate the use of the death penalty for drugs.

It was not possible to determine how many death senences were imposed for drug crimes in the region because "the death penalty is shrouded in secrecy in many Asian countries".

"However, reports have shown that in South East Asian countries, including Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam, the majority of death penalty cases are for drug crimes."

ADPAN said the death penalty was mandatory for certain drug offences in Brunei, India, Laos, Thailand, North Korea, Singapore and Malaysia, which gave judges "no authority to take into account extenuating circumstances" in individual cases.

The network was also particularly concerned that countries including Malaysia, China and Singapore made a presumption of guilt for drug offences, reversing the international legal standard that an accused person should first be presumed innocent until proven guilty in a fair trial.

This reversal was even more worrying in capital cases because it "increases the risk that an innocent person may be executed".

The statement said there was evidence that the death penalty was disproportionately used on "the poorest, most vulnerable members of society", including in drug trafficking cases.

"In many cases, people have become involved in drug trafficking out of desperation or ignorance.

"Executing these people not only fails to deter others, but also fails to deal with the underlying issues that drive them to offend, such as poverty and lack of education, and obviously precludes the possibility of reform."

Steps to abolition
The ADPAN statement urged countries in the Asia Pacific to follow the lead of the Philippines and Nepal and move towards abolition of the death penalty.

It said countries should start by "ending the use of the death penalty for drugs offences and studying and implementing alternative treatment to break the cycle of drug abuse and crime".

ADPAN said the sixteen Asia Pacific countries that still had the death penalty for drug crimes were: Bangladesh, Brunei, China, India, Indonesia, North Korea, South Korea, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Pakistan, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, Thailand, and Viet Nam.

ADPAN described itself as "is an independent informal network with over 34 members made up of individuals and organizations from 18 countries mainly from the Asia-Pacific region".

Related stories:
New voice against Asia's executions -- 10 October, 2006