Tuesday, 10 March 2009

DP improvements not for economic crimes: China

The Supreme People's Court (SPC) is attempting to improve consistency in the application of the death penalty in China in cases involving violence, robbery or drug trafficking.

The SPC is developing a guideline to "unify standards" for lower courts, according to a senior judge quoted by state newsagency Xinhua.

The guideline would apply to murder, robbery, abduction, drug trafficking and intentional injury, which the judge said accounted for nearly all death sentences handed down.

"It will include the necessary conditions for handing down the death sentence to those found guilty of any of the five crimes," he said.

"We must unify standards across the county so as to avoid such situations where different sentences are handed down to people found guilty of committing similar crimes."

However the report said the guideline was not expected to apply to cases involving economic crimes.

Xinhua said professor Chen Weidong, from the Renmin University of China, said unifying standards for capital punishment in serious economic cases would be complicated as "the value and harm done by economic crimes differ greatly, and the time is not yet right to set guidelines".

Capital, and punishment
China applies the death penalty to 68 offences, including for non-violent crimes.

A number of high-profile financial scandals have generated debate in China recently over the use, and consistency, of death sentences for economic offences.

Amnesty International (AI) reported an appeal by businesswoman Du Yimin was rejected on 13 January, after she was sentenced to death for illegally raising 700 million yuan (102 million U.S. dollars) in investments in her beauty parlours.

"Du Yimin’s death sentence has caused a debate about consistency in application of the death penalty," AI said.

"The day before she was sentenced to death, an official who used 15.8 billion Yuan of public funds to cover his personal spending was sentenced to fixed term imprisonment."

She was convicted of "fraudulent raising of public funds", although her lawyer argued she should have been convicted of the lesser offence of "illegally collecting public deposits", which carries a maximum sentence of 10 years' imprisonment and a fine of 500,000 yuan (73,000 U.S. dollars).

She could be executed at any time if her sentence is confirmed by the SPC.

'Reduced', but insufficient evidence
The SPC has claimed it overturned 15 per cent of death sentences in 2007 and the first half of 2008, although the government has consistently failed to release statistics to verify this claim.

Statistics about the use of the death penalty in China are classified as 'state secrets'.

Xinhua reported in June 2008 that the "high rejection rate shows how cautious the judiciary has been with capital punishment after the SPC took back the right to review death sentences from lower courts" from 1 January that year.

The presiding judge of the SPC's Third Criminal Law Court, Gao Jinghong, said at that time that the majority of the death sentences overturned were inappropriate or lacked sufficient evidence.

Xinhua also reported claims in May 2008 that Chinese courts had handed down 30 per cent fewer death sentences in 2007, compared with 2006 figures.

Related stories:
China: Death over milk, but no official answers -- 29 January 2009
China: Executions to preserve order, control -- 12 December 2008
Judge backs harsh sentences: China -- 20 April 2008
Party claims economic penalty 'prudent' -- 4 August, 2007
China: Courts claim fewer executions -- 31 July, 2007
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 retain death penalty, with reforms -- 13 March 2006

Friday, 6 March 2009

Government clash with top lawyer: Singapore

Singapore's law minister has attacked the president of the Law Society in Parliament for questioning the transparency and effectiveness of the criminal justice system.

Law Minister K. Shanmugam said in Parliament on 19 January that society president Michael Hwang SC had mounted "theoretical arguments" about crime and punishment that lacked "any real merit".

He was responding to an editorial published in the January edition of the Law Gazette, which argued that a measurable deterrence and proportionality between crime and punishment should underpin "a rational sentencing policy".

The article was a largely theoretical discussion of the purpose of punishment, and the role of deterrence and proportionality in sentencing.

Hwang called for greater research to inform a fundamental "re-think" of the country's laws and sentences, concluding that "Singapore is sadly lacking a principled and transparent penal policy".

"Possibly, this is because Government has not published detailed statistics of crime and punishment so that social scientists can undertake adequate research on the causes of crime and the effects of current penal policies on prisoners (especially recidivists)," he wrote.

"Only rigorous research with full access to relevant information can help us determine important penological questions such as:

"Is the death penalty effective in preventing murder and other capital crimes?

"Do strict liability offences achieve their object of deterring anti-social behaviour?

"What kind of punishments best deter what kind of behaviour?"

Shanmugam rejected the argument that the criminal justice system was "unprincipled".

"[A]any objective analysis of our penal system will show that the system is based on sound practical philosophy and principles, which have been made clear several times," he said.

"While we take a tough stand on crime, we also believe strongly in compassion and rehabilitation."

Statistics, secrets
He told Parliament the lawyer's article was unclear about what statistics should be published to aid research, and it ignored statistics currently published by police and narcotics control officials.

He said Hwang suggested the "publication of detailed statistics will lead us to a possibly conclusive answer to the debate on capital punishment".

"The debate on capital punishment ... is not going to be settled on the basis of statistics," he said.

There was "no universal consensus on such punishment".

"Serious and bitter debate on capital punishment has raged on in many countries.

"The philosophical and ideological chasms that separate the proponents and opponents of capital punishment are quite unbridgeable. Both sides marshal powerful arguments.

"On an issue like this, the Government has to take a stand."

Shanmugam responded to the claim the system was lacking in transparency with the government's usual argument that capital cases were "matters of public record" and the media reported on cases heard in open court.

However, the Singapore government has resisted repeated calls from human rights organisations and the United Nations (UN) to publish comprehensive information about who is sentenced to death, and for what crimes, as well as how many people are executed each year.

Threat, clarification
In comments quoted by The Straits Times, Shanmugam implied the criticism could damage the government's relationship with the Law Society.

"We have had a constructive and professional relationship with the Law Society for several years," Shanmugam said, according to The Straits Times.

"And for that to continue and for us to take the views seriously, the views that are expressed by the Law Society have to be well thought through and substantiated by facts.

"Sound bites and sweeping statements which are contrary to the facts, and which show a basic lack of understanding of our criminal laws and procedure, and approach to sentencing is not really constructive or helpful."

Michael Hwang stressed in the February 2009 issue of the Law Gazette that his article did not represent the views of the Law Society and was not approved by its governing council.

He said he would write to the minister "to explain the basis" of his message.

"I do not intend to have a public debate with the Minister but hope to have a constructive private dialogue with him."

Related stories:
Tochi in Singapore: "the burden thus shifted" -- 26 January 2008
Asian activists condemn drug executions -- 8 July 2007
Drug penalty violates international law -- 6 May 2007
Singapore activists: Rethink death penalty -- 23 January 2007
Remembering Van Tuong Nguyen -- 29 November 2006

Wednesday, 4 March 2009

Is Japan choosing next to die?

Amnesty International (AI) is concerned that Japan's Justice Minister Mori Eisuke is selecting the next prisoners for execution in order to minimise public objection to further hangings.

The organisation issued an international Urgent Action appeal on 27 February naming five men believed to be "at imminent risk of execution".

It said the minister wanted to increase the pace of executions, and he "is seeking to avoid public objections by singling out for execution those who, like these five, have recently abandoned their appeals or were convicted of crimes that have led to 'public revulsion'."

The men are:
  • YAMAJI Yukio (m), born 1983
  • SHINOZAWA Kazuo (m), born 1952
  • ZODA Hiroshi (m), born 1976
  • MAEUE Hiroshi (m), born 1971
  • OGATA Hideki (m), born 1980.
"Three of the five have abandoned their appeals; neither Shinozawa Kazuo nor Zoda Hiroshi has lodged an appeal," AI said.

Mori Eisuke has now sent six men to the gallows since he was appointed justice minister on 24 September 2008.

The last executions were carried out on 29 January 2009, when four men were hanged for murder.

Younger, faster death
Unusually for Japan's death penalty system, four of the men named are under 40 years of age.

Death row prisoners often wait several decades in prison before they are executed, usually receiving only a few hours' notice of when they will be killed. Some receive no warning at all.

However there have been recent worrying signs that Japan is speeding up executions after sentences are finalised.

Of the 32 people hanged in Japan since December 2006, five were aged in their 70s and 12 were in their 60s.

Related stories:
Japan: New year, more hangings -- 29 January 2009
Japan may execute before year ends -- 16 December 2008
Japan: Record toll with new hangings -- 28 October 2008
Japan: New minister faces next hanging -- 14 October 2008
Japan: New minister sends three to death -- 12 September 2008
Japan: Minister steps up rate of hangings -- 12 April 2008
Long wait, sudden death in Japan -- 28 August 2006

[Corrected 9 March 2009, updated information issued by AI.]