America Is Stuck With the Death Penalty for (At Least) a Generation

With Justice Anthony Kennedy's retirement, the national fight to abolish capital punishment will have to go local.
When the Supreme Court revived capital punishment in 1976, just four years after de facto abolishing it, the justices effectively took ownership of the American death penalty and all its outcomes. They have spent the decades since then setting its legal and constitutional parameters, supervising its general implementation, sanctioning its use in specific cases, and brushing aside concerns about its many flaws.
That unusual role in the American legal system is about to change. With Justice Anthony Kennedy’s retirement from the court this summer, the Supreme Court will lose a heterodox jurist whose willingness to cross ideological divides made him the deciding factor in many legal battles. In cases involving the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, his judgment often meant the difference between life and death for hundreds of death-row pr…

China’s Death Penalty Is Still Veiled in Secrecy, Amnesty Says

Chinese death-row inmates are marched to a nearby execution ground
Chinese death-row inmates are marched to a nearby execution ground where
they will be put to death with a shot in the back of the head.
BEIJING — When Jia Jinglong, a villager in northern China, was executed late last year for killing an official he blamed for the demolition of his home, the news media boiled with debate about the death sentence. Mr. Jia’s family and lawyers argued that the official had victimized him and that his life should have been spared.

“The verdict against my brother was unfair,” Mr. Jia’s sister, Jia Jingyuan, said in an interview this week. “There’s a gap between the standards written in the laws and how those standards are enforced.”

A report released by Amnesty International on Tuesday suggests that such complaints of injustice are far from isolated but often remain muffled by official secrecy. That secrecy has undermined the Chinese government’s vows to limit death sentences, distorting how common executions are in China, the report said.

“This deliberate and elaborate secrecy system, which runs counter to China’s obligations under international law, conceals the number of people sentenced to death and executed every year, both of which Amnesty International estimates run into the thousands,” said the report, which is 44 pages long.

The Amnesty report is the latest addition to a debate among experts and advocates about how much to trust China’s claims that it has sharply cut the number of prisoners it executes.

China’s president, Xi Jinping, has harshly stifled political protest and has overseen a widespread crackdown on human rights lawyers. In January, the head of China’s courts, Zhou Qiang, railed against any notion that judges should be independent of Communist Party control.

But Mr. Xi has also promised to give ordinary citizens a fairer and more open legal system, and in recent years courts have exonerated prisoners who had been executed or had been given decades-long prison sentences for crimes that they had not committed.

In 2007, China’s highest court, the Supreme People’s Court, won back the power to review death sentences, in an attempt to make use of the penalty more consistent and to root out egregious injustices. Mr. Xi’s government has also promised much greater transparency about judicial decisions and standards.

Some foreign experts say that the number of executions in China appears to have dropped, even though the government does not issue statistics.

At the height a decade or so ago, China probably executed 10,000 or more prisoners a year, the Amnesty report said, citing a Chinese scholar quoted in a news report last year.

But the number executed annually is now probably in the “low thousands,” said Susan Trevaskes, a professor at Griffith University in Australia who studies China’s use of the death penalty.

“All major death penalty scholars in China say that death penalty decision-making has improved greatly since 2007,” Professor Trevaskes said by email. “I believe that the government has significantly reduced use of the death penalty since the mid-2000s.”

But China still executes far more prisoners than any other country, and the government’s refusal to release full records about death sentences has undercut its claims to have reduced executions, said the report from Amnesty International, which opposes all uses of the death penalty. Amnesty argues that the persistent secrecy easily conceals abuses and that any trend toward fewer executions could be reversed, depending on the political winds.

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Source: The New York Times, Chris Buckley, April 10, 2017

Amnesty criticises 'rogue state' China as global death penalty toll falls

Rights group calls on Beijing to publish figures to allow informed debate about use of capital punishment

Amnesty International has sharply criticised China for continuing to conceal the number of people it sentences to death, as the human rights group reported a fall in executions globally last year.

The number of executions around the world fell by more than a 1/3 to 1,032 across 23 countries in 2016, compared with 1,634 in 25 countries in 2015. Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Pakistan were the top executioners.

It is estimated that China executes thousands of people, but Beijing does not release statistics and considers the number of death sentences to be a state secret.

Nicholas Bequelin, Amnesty's east Asia director, said: "It is time for China to stop being a rogue state in the international community with respect to the death penalty and finally allow the Chinese people to have a proper, informed debate about capital punishment in the country."

China has a conviction rate of about 99.9% and criminal trials heavily rely on confessions. Rights activists say suspects are often tortured or coerced into admitting guilt.

The Chinese government claims it has reduced the use of the death penalty and taken steps under a policy of "killing fewer, killing cautiously". As part of this, the county's top court must now approve death sentences handed out by lower courts.

But without concrete statistics, activists say there is no way to verify government claims. "There is absolutely no way to tell if death sentences are going up or down in China," Bequelin said. "Members of the international community have become very complacent on taking China's word at face value."

For years, China has rebuffed requests by the United Nations for more data on executions and ignored UN resolutions to increase transparency.

Nie Shubin
Nie Shubin, wrongly executed two decades ago
In 1 high-profile case that highlighted the problematic use of the death penalty, last year a man was exonerated 21 years after he was executed by firing squad for murder.

China's court system has a database of sentences, but it is largely incomplete, Amnesty found. Hundreds of death penalty cases were missing from the official judicial database, including all instances of foreigners sentenced to die over drug-related offences.

"China doesn't want to be embarrassed and they don't want the extra scrutiny," said William Nee, a China researcher at Amnesty. "We're talking about thousands of lives - not only wrongful executions but also cases where people are perhaps guilty but there are mitigating circumstances or issues of fair legal representation."

The 2 largest offences that were omitted from the government database were drug charges and so-called terrorism cases. There are 46 crimes punishable by death in China, including drug offences, arson and embezzlement.

Amnesty singled out China's use of the death penalty in terrorism cases, mainly centred on the north-west Xinjiang region, home to the Turkic Muslim Uighur ethnic group.

Authorities launched a "strike hard" campaign after a series of attacks, which included death sentences being handed out in public trials held in sports stadiums. "Whenever we've seen a strike hard campaign, we've traditionally seen increases in death sentences," said Nee.

Uighurs accounted for about 4% of death sentences, despite accounting for only 0.7% of China's total population, according to a partial analysis of capital punishment data.

A year after its founding in 1921, China's Communist party said it wanted to "abolish the death penalty, abolish corporal punishment". But by the time the Communists took power in 1949, the death penalty was frequently used against party enemies, and in less the 3 years 712,000 people were executed, according to official figures, during the "Campaign to Suppress Counter-revolutionaries".

Behind China, Iran executed at least 567 people in 2016, mostly for drug crimes, the Amnesty report said, followed by Saudi Arabia with at least 154 executions and Iraq with 88.

The United States carried out 20 death sentences last year, the lowest number since 1991, and the number of people sentenced to die dropped to the lowest since 1973.

Source: The Guardian, April 11, 2017

China's death penalty highest in the world, report says

The Chinese government may still be executing several thousand people, even though officials have claimed the death penalty only applies to an "extremely small" number of cases.

According to Amnesty International's 2016 global review of the death penalty, China outranks Iran and Vietnam, while putting to death more people annually that all other countries combined, The Washington Post reported Monday.

Describing the level of capital punishment in place as "grotesque," Amnesty stated thousands of people are executed every year in a court system that lacks judicial process in the trials.

"Given the lack of an independent judiciary in China, the dominant role of the police, and the systematic overreliance on confessions - often extracted through torture...there is a very real risk of miscarriages of justice," said William Nee, author of the Amnesty report.

Past convictions have been overturned.

In December, China cleared the name of a man who was convicted of rape and murder 2 decades ago.

Nie Shubin, executed by firing squad, was found not guilty but only after his family campaigned for him and another man eventually confessed to the crimes.

Executions have also helped to supply the country with organ transplants, a practice that was in place until 2015, according to the Chinese government.

Chinese President Xi Jinping has declared his plan to reform China's judicial system, but the country has yet to publish the exact number of executions still taking place in the country.

China's top legal official, Supreme People's Court President Zhou Qiang, has claimed executions are carried out in an "extremely small number of cases" and only for the "most severe offenses," writes Nicholas Bequelin, East Asia regional director at Amnesty.

But secrecy involving the executions remains an issue despite efforts at reform, according to Amnesty.

Iran registered the second highest number of executions, more than 560, in 2016, and Vietnam may have put to death 429 people between August 2013 and June 2016.

The United States fell out of the top 5 with the lowest number of executions, or 20, since 1991.

Source: United Press International, April 11, 2017

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