China: Thousands sentenced to death after unfair trials

A week ago a senior Chinese legislator suggested that China executes 10,000 people a year - more than the number of judicial executions recorded for the rest of the world combined.

Political interference is possible at every stage of criminal justice proceedings and the courts are under extreme political pressure to pass ever more and heavier sentences, quickly, as part of the 'strike hard' anti-crime campaigns.

Capital offences include crimes such as tax fraud, producing counterfeit currency, taking bribes and 'killing a panda.' Mobile execution chambers (converted buses) are being extensively used throughout China in which prisoners can be executed immediately after a sentence is passed.

Amnesty International UK Director Kate Allen said:

'The Chinese criminal justice system is in no condition to offer fair trials, impartiality, or justice. This means that thousands more people will be executed this year by a dysfunctional criminal justice system.

'Secrecy surrounding the justice systems and executions in China mean that the miscarriages of justice cited in our report are certain to be just the tip of the iceberg. Given the potential for executing the innocent revealed by this report, it is incumbent upon the Chinese government to impose a moratorium on executions as a matter of urgency.'

When detained on suspicion of committing a capital crime no one has the absolute right to immediate legal counsel; it is usually only after a person has been interrogated by police that they can engage a lawyer. Even then, this right is often denied or interfered with in practice.

However, it is often during the first interrogation that people are tortured and forced to 'confess' to the crime under investigation. Their 'confession' can then be used as evidence against them in court, and towards sentencing them to death.

Contrary to international standards there is also no presumption of innocence in Chinese law. A defendant in court is effectively required to prove their innocence rather than the prosecution being required to prove the defendant's guilt.

Political interference can intrude upon the judicial process at every stage of proceedings, and the notorious 'strike hard' campaigns against crime are putting courts under extreme pressure to secure more convictions.

Defendants in capital cases are likely to be sentenced to death by a judge with minimal or no legal expertise, the same judges who are often under political pressure to be enforcing the rule of the Party, rather than the rule of law.

A defendant's appeal against a death sentence can amount to a summary administrative procedure held behind closed doors, with final review and approval for an execution given by the same court that rejected the appeal.

For defendants accused of committing a capital crime which touches upon political or religious issues that the Chinese state is keen to suppress, all legal proceedings can be hidden from observers by declaring that the case involves 'state secrets'. This denies access to information and excludes observers from trials and is a veil behind which grossly unfair trials are conducted.

The report is based on individual cases researched by Amnesty International and cases gathered from China's official media. These include:

  • Tenzin Deleg Rinpoche, a Tibetan Buddhist cleric who was given a suspended death sentence following a blatantly unfair trial and a summary appeal procedure which saw his co-defendant Lobsang Dhundup executed on the day sentence was passed
  • Gong Shengliang, a Christian pastor who was also subjected to a blatantly unfair trial and sentenced to death, only to have his sentence reduced to life on appeal. He remains in prison, and there are serious concerns for his health following allegations of repeated and sustained beatings in prison.
  • Chen Guoqing and three co-defendants accused of murder in 1996. They have now been re-tried and re-sentenced to death four times. They have so far successfully appealed three times because the appeal court recognised the evidence against them was non-existent, scant, or based upon confessions extorted through torture. They remain in prison awaiting a final verdict.

As EU foreign ministers meet today the EU's political and trading relationship with China is on the agenda. Amnesty International is concerned that this 'human rights dialogue' has been used an excuse for the EU not to put forward a resolution criticising China's human rights record at the UN Commission on Human Rights, which is currently meeting in Geneva.

There are also concerns that today's meeting of foreign ministers will release conclusions on China that will be far less detailed than those of previous years.

Amnesty International is calling on the Chinese authorities to put an immediate moratorium on the use of the death penalty and to implement the international treaties it is already a party to, including the Convention Against Torture.

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