China ranks among the world's top executioners and rights activists say more people are put to death in China every year than in the rest of the world combined. Some estimates put the number of court-ordered executions as high as 10,000 a year.
Based on public reports available, in 2006 Amnesty International recorded 1,010 executions, or about two-thirds of the known total worldwide. Beijing however does not release official figures, which are designated state secrets. More than 60 types of crimes -- including economic ones like tax fraud and bribery -- are punishable by death in China.
In recent years the country has been under increasing international and domestic pressure to improve its much-criticized death penalty system. With the approach of the 2008 Olympic games, which Beijing is hosting, and the international attention focusing on China's human rights record, domestic media has been bolder exposing cases of wrongful executions, sparking national outrage.
In one of the latest examples of publicized "unjust cases," public opinion has rallied behind the 12-year-long quest of a mother to clear the name of her son who she claims was wrongfully executed for a crime he did not commit.
Nie Shuwu was executed in 1995 for a rape and murder. For ten years after the sentence was carried out, his mother challenged the authorities repeatedly to reverse the conviction with no success. But when in 2005, a serial rapist and killer was arrested and confessed to have killed Nie's alleged victim, public opinion erupted in fury over the apparent bungled dispense of justice.
In January Beijing took the unusual step of reinstating a requirement that every death sentence must be reviewed and approved by the country's Supreme Court. Observers have stated that in the past many court-ordered executions were based on forced confessions and rushed trials that often took less than a day.
Since the review by the Supreme Court was reinstated, the country has reported fewer executions and observers say Beijing expects a 10-year low this year.
With the Olympics drawing nearer, the Court recently ordered judges to be more cautious in the imposition of the death penalty.
An order on its website in September said executions should be reserved for "an extremely small number of serious offenders," while the ultimate punishment should be withheld in certain cases of crimes of passion or some economic crimes.
But the statement was unequivocal in backing the continued use of the death penalty as a crime deterrent. "We must hand down and carry out immediate capital punishment for heinous cases with iron-clad evidence that they have resulted in serious social damage," it said.
Even as the draft UN resolution calling for a global moratorium on the death penalty was about to be presented for a committee vote, China did not baulk at publicising its decision to sentence five ethnic Muslims to death for allegedly masterminding separatist activities in the country's far western region of Xinjiang.
"In order to split the nation... they carried out extreme religious activities and advocated holy war and established a terrorist training base," the state news agency Xinhua said on Nov 11 in its report on the sentencing.
The UN draft resolution, which was co-sponsored by European Union and 60 other countries, must still be submitted to the entire 192-member General Assembly for a vote expected in mid-December. If approved, it will be non-binding but will give a moral boost to those in China campaigning for death penalty abolition.
The text calls on all states still maintaining the death sentence to respect a moratorium "with a view to abolishing the death penalty." It urges them to "progressively restrict the use of the death penalty" and calls upon the 130 states which have already abolished the ultimate penalty not to reintroduce it.
Chinese academics claim that the public continues overwhelmingly to support the use of death penalty as a crime deterrent and as an ultimate tool in settling the wrongs suffered by innocent crime victims.
"Even if the death penalty had no deterrent force whatsoever but provided only consolation to the people, it would still be necessary," argues Yang Zhizhu, a researcher with the China Youth College for Political and Legal Studies.
"While China is still in the process of building its legal system, the death penalty is necessary for public consolation in the same way that a painkiller is needed when no cure is available for an acute disease," Yang wrote in a commentary in the Southern Weekend newspaper.
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Albion Monitor November
23, 2007 (http://www.albionmonitor.com)
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