Kirsten Han /
The Supreme People’s Court of China, who took back the right to review every death sentence handed down by lower courts four years ago, has released its annual report, ordering death row inmates to be given a 2-year reprieve. (This does not apply to those cases where the courts have decided that immediate execution is necessary.)
The BBC report by Michael Bristow states that “[t]hose benefiting from the changes will probably never be executed”, as “[c]riminals given a suspended death penalty usually have their sentences commuted to life imprisonment.”
This order of a suspension on most executions comes after changes made earlier this year removed 13 crimes from the list of offences punishable by death in China.
Although China is suspected of executing the more people than any other country in the world (China does not reveal any statistics on executions), there has been a significant reduction in executions carried out in China since the Supreme People’s Court of China began to review death penalty cases. The Irish Times report by Clifford Coonan says that the Supreme People’s Court overturned about 15% of the death sentences handed down in the first half of 2008.
Xinhua.net‘s reporter Li Wanmei spoke to Chinese criminal law attorney Low Qiuqin about this new development, and reports Ms Low as saying:
The death penalty is closely related to the most basic human right — life. If the criminal did not commit deliberate murder or other serious crimes, then sentencing a two-year suspension of execution may turn to be a lifetime sentence in prison. I think this adjustment is a positive move for human rights protection in our country.
According to the Xinhua article, the report issued by the Supreme People’s Court also stated that they would “strictly examine and judge the evidence to make sure that it is true and abundant, and in this way, standardize the death penalty application.” (emphasis added mine)
This reform in the application of the death penalty in China could stem from both international censure, as well as domestic outcry over errors and even wrongful executions. The Irish Times report highlighted two cases:
She Xianglin, from Hubei province, was sentenced to death in 1994 with two years’ reprieve for the murder of his wife, who had disappeared the same year. He was not executed and in 2005 his wife suddenly returned.
Nie Shubing was executed in 1995 for raping and killing a woman after he confessed under torture. In 2005 the real killer was arrested for other crimes.
My thoughts on these developments, in relation to the death penalty for drugs in Singapore
As a young individual who greatly values life, I was overjoyed to read these reports on the death penalty in China. These steps to reduce the number of executions taking place in China each year show a genuine interest on the part of the Supreme People’s Court in bringing China more in line with the rest of the world – most countries are moving away from the death penalty¹.
With this reform, China is showing its willingness to admit that its legal system is not flawless, and to reconsider the death penalty as a critical human rights issue, and not just a criminal justice issue.
I am also very glad to see that the report from the Supreme People’s Court stated that the evidence weighed during trials had to be “true and abundant”. When my fellow anti-death penalty campaigners and I read through the court judgements and statements for many of the cases that we have come across, such as that of Cheong Chun Yin, we were shocked by the number of unresolved doubts there could be within a case.
The sad truth is that, thanks to the presumption clauses within Singapore’s Misuse of Drugs Act, the evidence does not have to be “true and abundant” before the mandatory death sentence is handed down. This is because the accused is already presumed to be guilty, and the burden of proof reversed about him/her to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he/she is innocent.
As a result, people have been sent to the gallows even while there were doubts about their guilt², while others were executed simply because the mandatory aspect of the death penalty tied the judges hands³.
After the GE 2011, it seems as if Singapore’s government is going through reforms of its own. Although I have lost enough of my naïveté to realise that the death penalty issue in Singapore will not be resolved as long as our government continues to insist that the death penalty is not a human rights issue, I continue to hold on to the hope that one day we will see these positive steps that the Chinese courts are taking come to Singapore.
If a huge country like China, with its many accompanying issues and problems, can strive towards reducing the number of executions and death sentences handed down – perhaps even doing away with the death penalty in practice one day! – I have faith that a small, developed, well-governed country like Singapore can function as a nation without the death penalty.
Singapore’s local broadsheet The Straits Times also carried a report on page A30.
The article carried no by-line. There were also no indications of whether it was a report bought from an international news agency such as AFP or Reuters. As far as I can see, the report was cobbled together from other news outlets, such as the Global Times and the People’s Daily, as well as responses from “social critics”.
The Straits Times took a different angle from all the other reports I quoted above. While it agreed with the other reports that this move is in line with China’s “increasingly cautious approach towards the death penalty”, it also made suggestions that the move could also be an extension of the practice of offering death-row convicts with connections “the route of reprieve, commutation and then parole to freedom”.
The article also highlighted that this order from the Supreme People’s Court might also allow corrupt officials who have embezzled money might escape the death penalty, as well as murderers such as Yao Jiaxin.
Only one sentence was devoted to the possibility of miscarriages of justice, saying that it was the main reason for this reform. Nothing was mentioned about international human rights standards.
While I am not advocating for embezzlers, corrupt officials and murderers to escape punishment (and honestly, they are hardly getting off “scot-free”, as no execution does not mean no punishment – jail in China is still no picnic), I feel that in evaluating the death penalty, the possible miscarriage of justice is a huge issue that cannot be overlooked.
All over the world there have been cases of people being executed, and then exonerated or acquitted after death. By then, it is too late, and there is no comfort that we can offer to those who have been left behind.
Just read this story of Chiang Kuo-ching, who was charged with the rape and murder of a five-year-old girl, and executed at the age of 21 in 1997. His father spent the rest of his life trying to clear his son’s name, but died before Chiang Kuo-ching was exonerated posthumously. Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou personally apologised to Chiang’s mother, but nothing will ever bring her son back again. For all intents and purposes, her son was murdered – the only difference was that it was state-sanctioned murder.
Ultimately, it comes down to this: what is your philosophy? Do you want to kill 100 innocent people, out of the fear of letting 1 guilty person escape execution (again: escaping execution ≠ escaping punishment), or would you rather spare the lives of 100 guilty people, just so that 1 person will never be wrongfully killed? Where do you stand?
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¹ A statement from Amnesty International released in March 2011 states that 139 countries have ended the death penalty in law or in practice.
² One example: The trial judge in the case of Amara Iwuchuku Tochi himself admitted that “[t]here was no direct evidence that [Amara Tochi] knew the capsules contained diamorphine.” However, he went on to say that “Tochi should have known and therefore he is guilty” and Tochi was hanged on 26 January 2007 at the age of about 21.
³ One example: Rozman bin Jusoh was found to be of subnormal intellect. However, the Court of Appeal said that this was not enough for acquittal, and since mitigating circumstances could not be taken into account due to the mandatory nature of the death sentence, he was hanged on 12 April 1996.