How far is China ready to reduce its use of the death penalty?


By Aurélie Plaçais, on 25 November 2013

In its State report and in opening statement at its second UN Universal Periodic Review of human rights (UPR), on 22 October 2013, China said of capital punishment: “In the past few years, China has further reduced its application by taking a series of important measures to improve and perfect the evidence system in death penalty cases, reduce the number of capital crimes, and codify the standards for application of the death penalty and the procedures by which such cases are handled.”
For example, the Supreme People’s Court and other organs of the Central Government jointly issued regulations to exclude confession extracted through torture. An amendment to Criminal Law was adopted in 2011 to abolish the death penalty for 13 non-violent economic crimes.
China also reformed the Criminal Procedure Law in 2012 to allow lawyers to access their clients without prior appointment or official permission, and to allow requests from the counsel for the defence to be heard by the Court.

Recommendations from member states

During the UPR, UN member states issued a dozen of recommendations to work towards the abolition of the death penalty; to reduce the number of crimes carrying the death penalty; to introduce a system of clemency and to publish figures regarding death sentences and executions. China indicated that these recommendations will be examined and that they will provide responses for the 25th session of the Human Rights Council in March 2014.
During the previous UPR the Chinese government systematically rejected recommendations on the use of the death penalty and the independence of the judiciary and lawyers.
Then on 12 November 2013, the UN General Assembly elected China as a member of the Human Rights Council with 176 votes out of 193. China had previously served two consecutive terms from 2006-2012. In its candidacy, China pledged to “advance the reform of the judicial system” and to “continue to strengthen the prudent application of the death penalty”.
On 15 November 2013, the Third plenary session of the Communist Party’s Central Committee decided to “gradually reduce the number of crimes punishable by death”.

What China is not ready to commit to

While the reduction of capital crimes is one of the key measures to be implemented in the short term, the offences for which the death penalty will be abolished are still unclear. Non-violent crimes such as counterfeiting or aggravated offences of procuring are likely to be on the list as they attract hardly any death sentences in the country, but other non-violent crimes such as corruption or drug trafficking are more controversial. The government put the fight against corruption as a high priority in its political agenda and abolition of the death penalty for corruption would go against this.
Transparency, too, is unlikely to have the support of the Chinese authorities. The death penalty is a State secret in China, which does not publish any official statistics about the number of executions and sentences, the crimes for which people have been sentenced to death and executed or any other information.
According to the Dui Hua Foundation report to the UN for China’s UPR, about 16,500 people were executed between 2009 and 2012. Although the number of executions has decreased compared to previous years, it is still disproportionate compared to the rest of the world. China is more likely to keep it secret because it would look so bad at the international level.

Implementation challenge

It is also difficult to assess the extent to which China will implement the recent regulations and amendments to the Criminal Procedure Law. For example, Human Right Watch stated that “according to article 37 of the newly revised Criminal Procedural Law, lawyers must be able to access their clients without prior appointment or official permission, and such access should be arranged within 48 hours. But there is also a dangerous loophole: if a case is deemed to involve endangering national security, terrorism, or major bribery, access to lawyers can be denied. Police can do so arbitrarily, and there are few ways to challenge such a decision”.
China may, once again, reject all the UPR recommendations next March to make a point about its sovereign right to use the death penalty, but it will implement some of them before its next UPR. The Chinese authorities have come to realise that the number of executions in the country had no equivalent in the world and it is a record they are not proud of. Although China officially refuses to bend to international pressure, abolitionist organisations should continue to address the issue to keep it high on the agenda of reforms.

Photo: Liu Jieyi, Permanent Representative of China to the UN (UN Photo/Amanda Voisard)

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