China: Issue Moratorium
Secrecy, Unfair Trials, Overbroad Laws Still the Rule Despite Reform
Human Rights Watch,
October 8, 2007
(New York, October 8, 2007) – China should impose a moratorium on
all executions as a goodwill gesture before the 2008 Beijing Olympic
Games, Human Rights Watch said today. Human Rights Watch issued
its call for a moratorium in advance of the World Day against the
Death Penalty on October 10. China is estimated to execute more
people than the rest of the world combined.
Human Rights Watch said that during the moratorium the Chinese
government should sharply reduce the number of crimes eligible for
the death penalty, make public the number of people executed and
awaiting execution, and institute changes in trial and appeal
procedures to ensure that they meet at least international minimum
standards of fairness in all cases where capital punishment is
demanded by prosecutors.
"As the world focuses on China's poor human rights record in the run-
up to the Olympics, the Chinese government could avoid further
embarrassment by making a bold step to address its position as the
world's leading executioner of its own citizens," said Brad Adams,
Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
The Chinese government classifies as "state secrets" all statistics
regarding capital punishment. Credible estimates suggest
approximately 7,500 executions per year. State media claim that the
number of people executed decreased in 2007 after the adoption of a
system of mandatory vetting by the Supreme People's Court, China's
highest judicial institution, took effect on January 1, 2007. The
government also cites two additional regulations aimed at "killing
fewer, killing more cautiously," which were promulgated on February
27 and March 9, respectively. However, while this new system
provides an additional centralized administrative review, it does not
address serious systemic weaknesses in the trial process.
"The reported decrease in the number of executions is welcome, but
that is no substitute for full transparency, fair trials, adequate defense
counsel, and judicial independence," said Adams. "Because of
structural deficiencies in the conduct of trials in China, no one
executed in China today receives a fair trial in line with international
The Chinese criminal justice system recognizes neither the
presumption of innocence nor the right to remain silent, and places
sharp limits on defense counsel and the rights of the accused. Torture
to obtain confessions remains prevalent. A spate of wrongful
convictions have emerged in recent years, with the deputy procurator-
general, Wang Zhenchuan, estimating in 2006 that there are at least 30
cases every year of wrongful convictions attributable to confessions
extracted through torture and that "nearly every wrongful verdict in
recent years relates to illegal interrogation."
Chinese scholars have also expressed doubts that the newly introduced
regulations can ensure justice in cases that have political implications.
In particular, they point to the extreme speed with which the Supreme
People's Court approved the execution of two former senior officials
whose cases had national repercussions. In the case of Guo Yanyu, the
former head of China's food and drug agency, who was charged with
corruption, the Supreme Court completed its review in 13 working
days, while it took just 10 working days for Duan Yihe, a member of
the Chinese People's Congress from Jinan, Shandong Province, who
was convicted of murdering his mistress in a car explosion.
The desire to be seen as being tough on corruption and public order
and to "appease public indignation" is a repeated justification
advanced by the Chinese government to retain capital punishment.
Human Rights Watch said it was particularly concerned about official
announcements by top security officials that the authorities would
carry out anti-crime campaigns in the run-up of the 2008 Summer
Olympics. These campaigns are often directly linked with an increase
in death penalty sentences and executions.
In July, China's top law and order official, Luo Gan, announced that
the authorities would "crack down severely on all kinds of hostile
forces and troublemakers" bent on disturbing a "peaceful Olympics,"
and "severely punish all kinds of crimes."
"The International Olympics Committee should publicly press China
for a moratorium on all executions during the Games," said Adams.
"This would be in line with the Olympic Charter, which aims to
promote through sport 'a peaceful society concerned with the
preservation of human dignity.'"
The death penalty is currently mandated for no fewer than 68 crimes,
including embezzlement and corruption. Chinese legal experts have
long advocated that the most effective way of limiting the number of
executions would be to limit the death penalty to violent crimes. But
the government has shied away from such reform, because it does not
want to appear as if it is unwilling to punish severely corrupt cadres
and party officials, which is a growing cause of social discontent in
Although the death penalty has not been banned categorically in
international law, the strong trend is toward its eventual abolition.
Human Rights Watch opposes the death penalty in all circumstances as
inherently cruel, irreversible, and usually discriminatory in application,
and believes it violates the right to life and fundamental dignity that all
human beings possess.