Most of the world’s executions take place in China. The authorities there continued to shroud the country’s use of the death penalty in secrecy during 2011, and they obstructed efforts to verify their claims that the use of capital punishment had been significantly reduced since 2007. In the absence of published official figures, the coverage by state-owned media of several high-profile cases sparked intense discussion in the country during 2011. However, it was impossible to debate the subject adequately without access to all the key facts.
In 2011, the Chinese government eliminated the death penalty for 13 crimes, mainly white-collar offences for which executions were rarely carried out. However, it retained the death penalty for many other non-violent crimes, such as corruption and drug trafficking. The authorities also expanded the scope of capital punishment to include crimes such as forcing or deceiving someone to donate their organs, which in some circumstances can now be classified as intentional wounding or intentional killing, both of which are punishable by death. The government also expanded the circumstances under which a death sentence can be imposed for producing and selling fake drugs or poisonous or harmful foodstuffs.
People facing the death penalty in China continued not to receive fair trials in 2011. The accused were not presumed innocent – they had to prove it – and police often extracted confessions through torture or other forms of ill-treatment. Under Chinese legislation, prisoners under sentence of death do not have the right to seek pardon or commutation of their sentence from the executive branch. Severe procedural flaws continued to expose thousands of people to the risk of arbitrary deprivation of life.
Foreign nationals continued to be sentenced to death in China, particularly for crimes that did not meet the threshold of “most serious crimes”. A Pakistani man, Syed Zahid Hussain Shah, was executed by lethal injection on 21 September 2011, after the Supreme People’s Court in Beijing had approved his death sentence. He had been sentenced to death in Shanghai in March 2010 for drug trafficking, although he claimed he was innocent. His family stated he had not received adequate consular assistance during his detention, and that they had sent letters to Pakistani Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani and President Asif Ali Zardari to ask for help. Pakistan’s Advisor for Human Rights told Amnesty International that he had asked Pakistan’s President to intervene in the matter and to request that his Chinese counterpart delay the execution.
Amendments to China’s Criminal Procedure Law were being drafted and debated during 2011. Provisions in the draft circulated for public consultation last year included significantly enhanced procedures for suspects and defendants in capital cases, and they provide some clarification of the role of lawyers in the final review process. Furthermore, the revisions propose that interrogations of all suspects may be recorded or videoed, and that they should be recorded in full for suspects facing a potential death sentence or life imprisonment (new Article 120). They require a court of second instance to hold hearings in all capital cases and other cases where the defence and prosecution disagree on the facts or evidence (amended Article 222). Concerning the procedure for final approval of the death sentence by the Supreme People’s Court (SPC), the revisions (amended Article 238) broaden the SPC’s powers so that, in addition to remanding a case for retrial if it does not approve a death sentence, it may also, in all cases, hold a hearing itself and revise the sentence (tishen yu gaipan). The proposed revisions require the SPC to question the defendant during the review process, and also to listen to the arguments of the defence lawyer if requested to do so by the lawyer (amended Article 239).
The scope of the proposed amendments is limited, but they are welcome enhancements to the procedures in capital cases, which international standards demand must incorporate the most stringent safeguards.