washingtonpost.com
China's Capital Cases Still Secret, Arbitrary

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.

The same month, Du Yimin, 43, owner of a beauty parlor in the eastern province of Zhejiang, was convicted of illegally collecting $100 million from the public for investment schemes that fell apart. The money involved in Du's case was less than 5 percent of that in Zhu's case. Her sentence: the death penalty.

"The difference between him and my sister is that she's only an ordinary citizen," said Du's brother, Du Jianmin, 44, an engineer in a local government construction bureau.

In other recent cases, defendants were executed on the basis of charges that involved even less stolen money.

In March, bank workers Ren Xiaofeng, 34, and Ma Xiangjing, 37 -- who purchased about $6.4 million in lottery tickets with money they took from their employer's vaults -- were executed in Hebei province. And in February 2007, Liu Jianghua, 31, a former accountant at the Agricultural Bank in Yunnan province, was executed for embezzling about $1.19 million that he spent mostly on online soccer gambling.

Meanwhile, public officials convicted of similar crimes often receive what is called "death with a two-year reprieve," or a suspended death sentence. In reality, with two years of good behavior, these sentences are commuted and convicts are allowed to leave prison on probation in as little as 14 years. They can also be released on bail for medical treatment at any time.

Du's case has triggered public outrage because of the contrast between her sentence and that of Shanghai government official Zhu. The two were sentenced one day apart. Du, who remains in wrist and ankle shackles in a government prison, is appealing.

As the story goes, Du's troubles began when she tried to expand her business beyond the beauty salon she owned in Lishui town in eastern China.

She had opened the salon in 1995 out of desperation. Her husband, whom she met while both were working at the same fertilizer factory, had abandoned her and their son. Du, who left school after junior high, was determined to provide a better life for her son and hoped to use profits from the salon for his college education. As the town became wealthier, so did she. From 2003 to 2006, she invited 67 families in the region to participate in a fund she had created to invest in real estate, cosmetics and mining. She raised more than $100 million and promised monthly interest of 1.8 to 10 percent, depending on the amount investors contributed.

Prosecutors accused her of tricking investors and spending the money in a shopping spree, buying apartments, cars, clothes, handbags and other luxury items. She asked investors to recruit other investors, they said, using the new money to pay back the earlier investors in a pyramid scheme that collapsed when the funds ran out and a bank loan she had applied for to keep the ruse going was denied.

The sentencing document said so much money was involved that there was "enormous social harm." Du's family says she was an honest if naive woman who made some bad investments. "She was so air-headed that she returned the money to some investors but she didn't even ask for a receipt back," Du's brother said.

Investors included the wives of public officials, who were customers at Du's upscale salon. Du's mother, Lu Suying, 71, said some powerful people wanted "to shut her up by death."

Circumstantial Evidence

Wo Weihan's case was the subject of intense lobbying last month by international diplomats, who angered China by saying that Wo had not had a fair trial.

After denying Wo access to a lawyer for 10 months, the government told his attorney that the evidence and even the full extent of the charges against him were state secrets that could not be shared with anyone, not even Wo's family. There were signs that the man who enjoyed flying kites in Tiananmen Square and hiking along the Great Wall might have been mistreated while in custody, his family said: Wo had no history of health problems, but the 60-year-old suffered a stroke during the first few weeks after his arrest. He was convicted in two hearings that were closed to the public, based on a confession his family says he recanted. He was sentenced to death in May 2007.

Wo's career had begun with promise. After receiving a master's degree from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Wo moved with his family to Munich, where he received a doctorate in 1991, and then to Austria, where he lived until 1997. He set up a joint-venture biotechnology company in Beijing that later went public and Beijing Bei Yi Ke Tai Medicine Carrier Technology Co. in 1999, for which he was chief scientist. In his spare time, he enjoyed reading science magazines and articles about biochemistry. On Jan. 19, 2005, he returned home to find men from the Ministry of National Security, who took him to a detention center. After suffering the stroke in custody on Feb. 6, Wo was allowed to recuperate under house arrest. He was picked up again in March. The lawyer the family hired in April was not able to meet Wo until January 2006.

Wo was accused of working for a Taiwan-based spy organization known as the Grand Union of Unifying China With Three People's Principles. But two military analysts in Taiwan said the group was not a spy ring but a nongovernmental organization set up more than 20 years ago to give financial support to dissidents, including those who protested in Tiananmen Square in 1989. It no longer has ties to the government of Taiwan or the ruling party, said Alexander Huang, director of strategic studies at the Graduate Institute of American Studies at Tamkang University, and Andrew Yang, secretary general of the Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies.

The evidence against Wo that is supplied in the final verdict appears circumstantial at best: Wo's contacts book contained the numbers and addresses of the Grand Union group and some of its members; a witness saw Wo photocopying periodicals in the library of the Chinese Academy of Sciences; Wo received part of a draft design for a missile targeting device; and Wo and his wife had repeatedly visited the home of his co-defendant, whose work involved the research and production of missile targeting devices.

Additional proof was found in a business trip Wo took to Nanjing in 1995, in his directions to his wife to delete e-mails and in testimony from a mysterious man named Min who said he and Wo may have talked about the health of senior leaders. His family members do not recognize the man described in the verdict, and they say they know of no Taiwan connection.

Late last month, they were allowed to visit Wo for the first time since the case began, leading them to conclude that execution was imminent. "He was very happy to see us since he hasn't seen anyone in our family for four years," said Wo's daughter Ran Chen, 31, an Austrian citizen. "He again repeatedly told me that he is innocent and that the conviction is not correct."

Wo told his family he still had confidence in the Chinese justice system.

He was executed the next morning, despite a promised second family visit. He died a convicted spy, even though he said he had signed a confession only because security officials promised he would not be prosecuted if he did so.

"It's very hard to picture my father in this role," his daughter said. "But the problem is not what do I believe but what can the court prove. And the lack of information and misinformation wasn't humane. It was devastating, just devastating."

Cha reported from Shanghai and Lishui, China. Special correspondent Jane Rickards in Taipei and researcher Crissie Ding in Shanghai contributed to this report.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company