dijous, 17 de desembre del 2009

A deadly privilege becomes a right for all

Beijing municipality's No 1 Detention Center is one of the top penitentiaries in China, but there are no signs to guide visitors there. Abandoned yards and demolished factories surround a complex that seems like an island in the middle of an ocean. If the cells had windows - that's not the case - prisoners would be able to see only construction sites in the distance.

Unlike the adjacent heavily fortified Beijing Second Prison, No 1 has no special security measures for its perimeter - only high walls and closed-circuit TV cameras. The guards are the same unarmed young migrant workers in oversized uniforms that one sees patrolling local residential areas. They even have time to play with two stray dogs that regularly wander across the main check point. The scene is quiet, but the facility is often the focus of media attention, due to the notorious political and white-collar prisoners detained for sentencing in it. Public interest in the center is likely to grow even more next year as all death sentences for Beijing will be carried out in it. The executions will all be by lethal injection, part of nationwide plans announced by the People's Supreme Court in February to discontinue execution by a bullet in the back of the head by 2010.

To date, at least 15 provinces and municipalities have adopted the policy. The China Daily reported on Friday that Liaoning province in the northeast had become the nation's first to adopt the policy. "Lethal injection can reduce the fear and suffering experienced by criminals," the Higher People's Court of Liaoning said in a statement on its website. Despite a raging national debate over capital punishment, local rights groups estimate that at least 5,000 people are executed each year in China - more than four times the rest of the world combined. Since 1949, executions were carried out mainly by firing squads, but the revised Criminal Procedure Law in 1996 stipulated that "the death penalty could be executed by shooting or injection". In 1997, China became only the second country after the United States to use lethal injections.

The China Daily reported in November that "Beijing's first permanent lethal injection facility has been completed, ahead of plans to abolish execution by firing squad for criminals next year". The state-owned newspaper confirmed that "most criminal executions this year were carried out by a firing squad at various sites in suburban Beijing''. Zhao Bingzhi, a leading member of the China Law Science Society, told the China Daily that the decision to replace the firing squad with lethal injection was fair because firing squads "horrify the public and torture the criminals, who also deserve decent deaths".

The best-selling author and dissident, Ma Jian, recounted in his book Red Dust the experience of attending a public execution:
Public executions take place throughout China in the run-up to [October 1] National Day. I have grown up reading these death notices and have attended several executions. I once watched an army truck stop, a young man called Lu Zhongjian come out, handcuffed, and two soldiers escorted him away. When he started to scream, they slung a metal wire over his mouth and tugged it back, slicing through his face. Then they kicked him to the ground and shot three bullets into his head.

Despite no official edict stopping the practice, observers have not been aware of public executions in China in recent years. However, The Washington Post reported in July 2008 that three young men were shot in a public square in the city of Yengishahar in Xinjiang - the mainly Muslim region of northwestern China - after the local government bused in several thousand students and office workers for the spectacle.

At the end of the 1990s, in provinces with high crime rates, police were given special buses to carry out lethal injection executions. Mobile executions vans, converted 24-seater buses, were distributed to many courts across the country. The windowless execution chamber at the back contained a metal bed on which the prisoner was strapped down. Once the needle was attached by the doctor, a police officer would press a button and an automatic syringe inserted the lethal drug into the prisoner's vein. Liu Renwen, a prominent expert on the law relating to the death penalty at the Chinese Academy of Social Science, said in a 2008 interview for the newspaper The Beijing News that the use of buses had decreased because they were too expensive to maintain.

Jiang Xinchang, vice president of the Supreme People's Court, told the China Daily in February that a lethal injection "is considered more humane and will eventually be used in all intermediate people's courts". The cost of an execution by firing squad is 700 yuan (US$102), while a single drug dose for a lethal injection execution costs 300 yuan, said Liu. The drug used is a mixture of barbiturates, a muscle relaxant and potassium chloride, according to the Xinmin Evening News. The barbiturates are used to make the prisoners lose consciousness, the muscle relaxant paralyze the heart and paralyze pulmonary activities, while the third ingredient, potassium chloride, can lead to cardiac arrest, according to medical experts. The lethal injection formula has faced controversy in the United States, where the Berkeley School of Law has claimed that if the anesthetic fails, the use of potassium chloride causes extreme pain: "There is no medical dispute that, if an individual is not unconscious, the intravenous injection of this drug causes excruciating pain, likened to setting one's veins on fire." Liu admits there is a risk because "some unqualified prison staff members have been known to take too long injecting the drug".

He said that prison authorities tried to relieve the pressure on executioners. "We have a superstition here that administering a death penalty is not auspicious," said Liu. He explained that executions were carried out with "four needles with the same dosage and color ... One contains a fatal drug; one is supporting medicine and then there are two injections of saline water. Four bailiffs will choose their injections randomly. No one knows who gave the fatal drug, which is helpful for relieving psychological stress among the operational staff."

The Chinese Criminal Defense Network, a national criminal law bar, sets lawyers' fees for death sentence trials at an average of 50,000 yuan, or US$7,313. This is expensive in a country where the per capita annual income is US$6,000. At least under the new method the family of the condemned prisoner is not expected to pay for the drugs. In the past, families of condemned prisoners were sent a bill for the bullet used in the execution. Zhao Li, a lawyer specializing in the death penalty, told Asia Times Online by telephone, "Generally, persons who commit economic crimes or crimes by taking advantage of their duty are executed by lethal injection. And for general crimes, criminals are less likely to be killed by lethal injection."

Fewer death sentences have been carried out in China since the Supreme People's Court in 2007 assumed the final say in approving the sentence. The Dui Hua Foundation, an institution devoted to defending the rights of Chinese prisoners, states that a sharp decline in capital punishment began at least 10 years ago. Then, about 10,000 people were executed each year; Dui Hua expects that in 2009 the number will drop to 5,000. Wang Jun, director of the Forensic Division of the Kunming Intermediate People's Court, said in 2008 that one of the reasons for using lethal injections was the risk of HIV infection presented by clearing up after firing squads. About 20% of those condemned to capital punishment in Yunnan had the HIV virus, said Wang, as most were heroin addicts who used shared needles. Yunnan borders the Golden Triangle, the notorious drug-smuggling area that includes Myanmar and Thailand.

Dui Hua points out that another reason for the Chinese authorities' support of the lethal injection may be that this method better preserves the body for organ donations. In August, the China Daily reported that 65% of transplants that originated in China came from executed prisoners, who reportedly were voluntarily donors. But Zhou Zhenjie, an expert on criminal law at the Waseda Institute for Advanced Study, ruled out the relation between lethal injections and organ donations. He said the main reason behind the change in policy was that it caused less pain to prisoners. Zhou believes that China is taking "steps in order to limit the application of the death penalty and ensure its accuracy and transparency", but adds that the great majority of criminal law scholars want the complete abolition of the death penalty."

Cristian Segura, Asia Times Online. China injects 'humanity into death sentence.