Excluding China, other states put 1,032 people to death in 2016. China’s official death penalty figures are a state secret, but Amnesty said it continues to execute thousands of people every year.
“China wants to be a leader on the world stage, but when it comes to the death penalty it is leading in the worst possible way — executing more people annually than any other country in the world,” said Salil Shetty, Amnesty International’s secretary general. “It is high time for China to lift the veil on this deadly secret and finally come clean about its death penalty system.”
In China, crimes such as robbery, arson, embezzlement and selling state secrets are all potentially worthy of the death penalty.
Amnesty accused the Chinese government of enforcing “an elaborate secrecy system to obscure the shocking scale of executions in the country, despite repeated claims it is making progress towards judicial transparency.”
Hundreds of documented death penalty cases are missing from the Supreme People’s Court’s online database that was initially touted as a “crucial step towards openness” and is regularly heralded as evidence that the country’s judicial system has nothing to hide, the report alleged.
Amnesty found public news reports of at least 931 individuals executed between 2014 and 2016, which it said was only a fraction of the total executions. Just 85 of them are recorded in the state database, which also omits foreign nationals given death sentences for drug-related crimes and numerous cases related to “terrorism.” Media reports cite at least 11 executions of foreign nationals over that period, Amnesty said.
Experts believe there has been a significant reduction in the number of death sentences handed out in China each year since Supreme Court review of all capital cases was mandated in 2007.
Indeed, Chinese scholars were quoted by the Beijing-based Caixin media, a financial news media group, as telling a conference last September that the annual tally has fallen by 60 percent in the past decade, from a five-figure number to a four-figure one.
But it is not only the scale of the executions that disturbs activists, it is the lack of judicial process involved in the trials.
“Given the lack of an independent judiciary in China, the dominant role of the police, and the systematic over-reliance on confessions — often extracted through torture — and the fact that thousands of cases are processed every year, there is a very real risk of miscarriages of justice,” said William Nee, lead author of the report.
Last December China overturned the conviction of a man, Nie Shubin, who had been killed by firing squad for rape and murder 21 years before: another man had confessed to the crime more than a decade before, but it took a tireless campaign by Nie’s family before his name was finally cleared.
In late 2014, another man, known as Huugjilt or Hujilit, was also cleared of rape and murder 18 years after he had been put to death as an 18-year-old. After 48 hours of interrogation, he had confessed to the crime and was executed two months later. But doubt was cast on the verdict in 2005 when an alleged serial killer confessed to murdering the woman.
Both cases attracted significant public outrage against the authorities, and sympathy for the unjustly executed men.
“There have been a few high-profile exonerations in recent years — of Hujilit and Nie Shubin — but without greater transparency, the Chinese public will have no idea how many cases like Nie Shubin’s there really are,” Nee said.
Until 2015, China admits, it used organs from executed prisoners as the mainstay of its organ transplant industry but now says it relies exclusively on a voluntary donation system.
Teng Biao, a visiting scholar at Harvard Law School and co-founder of China Against the Death Penalty, says miscarriages of justice are common, citing the lack of judicial independence, political interference, judicial corruption, police powers and limited lawyers’ rights.
“Judges need to listen to the orders of the party committee,” he said. “Then there’s the public security bureau. In most cases judges dare not go against the will of the police chief.”
“Lawyers’ rights are limited and courtroom trials are mere formalities: judges do not need to listen to lawyers since they have already written their verdicts before the trial,” he added.
Outside China, Amnesty said, the number of executions fell to 1,032 people in 2016, down from 1,634 in 2015. Iran executed the second highest number of people, at least 567, in 2016, while reports in Vietnamese media showed that country had secretly been the world’s third biggest executioner in the past three years, killing 429 people between August 2013 and June 2016.
The United States fell out of the top five for the first time since 2006, with the number of executions, 20, the lowest for any year since 1991. That is half of what it was in 1996 and five times lower than 1999.
“The number of death sentences (32) was the lowest since 1973, a clear sign that judges, prosecutors and juries are turning their back on the death penalty as a means of administering justice,” Amnesty said, while noting that 2,832 people remain on death row in the United States.
Congcong Zhang contributed to this report.