China's Capital Cases Still Secret, Arbitrary

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By Maureen Fan and Ariana Eunjung Cha
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, December 24, 2008

BEIJING -- Compared with murder and other violent crimes, the charges against Wo Weihan seemed minor, if a little exotic: copying articles from missile technology magazines in a public library, buying four night-vision equipment scopes, gathering information about the health of senior government leaders and collecting documents from a local Communist Party conference.

Yet the once-respected scientist with his own medical research laboratory in the capital was branded a spy and executed last month after a closed trial. His is one of several recent executions that highlight the secrecy, lack of due process and uneven application of the law that continue to surround capital cases two years after China embarked on a radical overhaul of the way it handles the death penalty.

Starting in 2007, China began for the first time in more than two decades to require a final review of every capital case by the Supreme People's Court. The hope was to reduce the number of executions and bring some consistency to a process that had been handled unevenly by lower courts. The former president of the Supreme People's Court who pushed for the review, Xiao Yang, vowed that the death penalty would be used only on "extremely vile criminals."

As a result of its reforms, China says, the Supreme People's Court overturned about 15 percent of the death sentences handed down by high courts in the first half of 2008. In a brief report in May, the New China News Agency quoted anonymous sources as saying Chinese courts handed down 30 percent fewer death sentences last year compared with 2006. But in a largely closed legal system directed by party committees, the changes have not been as far-reaching as the statistics suggest, and consistency remains a distant goal.

Defendants on death row continue to be executed for such nonviolent crimes as illegal fundraising, graft, drug dealing and espionage. They are prosecuted and dispatched with a lack of transparency, according to Chinese lawyers who complain of blocked access to their clients and say many confessions are still coerced.

There are also double standards: Public officials accused of embezzling millions receive suspended death sentences that spare their lives, while ordinary citizens convicted of stealing far less die by lethal injection or a single gunshot to the head, according to lawyers and court records.

China remains the world's top executioner -- the Dui Hua Foundation, a human rights group, estimates that China carried out 5,000 to 6,000 executions in 2007. The same year, the United States executed 42 people. On a per-capita basis, China is estimated to have carried out 30 times the number of executions the United States did.

The Chinese government has a long-standing policy of not commenting on the death penalty and keeps the number of executions secret. There was no response to a fax and phone calls to the Supreme People's Court, the Ministry of Justice and public security officials.

In March, the head of the First Criminal Law Court of the Supreme People's Court, Huang Ermei, said the death penalty was an appropriate deterrent for a country with such fast development and rising crime. Although attitudes were changing among lawyers and academics, the death penalty is "deeply rooted in people's mentality," she said in a report on the Web site of the New China News Agency. "For now, conditions are not ripe for China to abolish the death penalty, not even for a longer period of time," she wrote.

'Shut Her Up by Death'

Prominent Chinese academics have urged Beijing in recent years to abolish the death penalty for nonviolent crimes to bring China in line with international conventions on human rights, said Liu Renwen, a deputy director of the department of criminal law at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

The discrepancy in legal treatment between public officials and those without connections has furthered calls for reform. Although ordinary Chinese may get the death penalty for financial crimes, public officials are more likely to get a lighter sentence -- even when the money involved in their cases is significantly more. "There have been fewer and fewer death penalties for corrupt officials. Compared with these cases, it seems unfair to sentence illegal fundraisers to the death penalty," Liu said.

For instance, Zhu Junyi, the chief of Shanghai's Labor and Social Security Bureau, was convicted in March of accepting bribes and misusing public funds. A judge ruled that Zhu diverted $2.3 billion in government money. He was sentenced to 18 years in prison.


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