An Olympic Reprieve for China's Convicts

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For those facing time on China's death row, it must have come as a rare piece of good news: late last week, the Chinese government said it has reduced the number of prisoners it will execute this year. On Friday the China Daily, the country's official English-language newspaper, published figures from two Beijing courts suggesting that in the first five months of 2007, the number of death sentences dropped 10% from last year. "In each case, whenever there is a doubt about whether execution is the appropriate penalty, we should always be ready to drop it," the Supreme People's Court Chief Justice Xiao Yang was quoted as saying.

In the past, human rights groups have criticized China for its notoriously poor treatment of prisoners and harsh sentencing policies, particularly for those convicted of political crimes. In January, however, new regulations were put in place mandating that the Supreme People's Court, China's highest bench, must review all death sentences. In March, China's four major law enforcement agencies also called for more caution in handling death penalty cases and specifically discouraged torturing prisoners and coercing confessions. "The lower courts have to be more prudent now," Ni Shouming, a spokesman for the Supreme People's Court, said Friday. "If a case is sent back for a retrial by the highest court, it not only means the first judgment is wrong, but also a matter of shame for the lower court."

Human Rights Watch researcher Nicholas Bequelin notes that lowering the number of executions is now the "official policy" of the Chinese government. "All executions are state secrets in China. There's a sense if the real numbers came out the government would be terribly embarrassed," Bequelin says. His research indicates that internal guidelines over the past decade have instructed courts to be more judicious in meting out death sentences and to instead commute such penalties to life in prison in many cases. As Bequelin puts it, "'Kill fewer, kill better' is now the party motto."

But the changes may run even deeper. The day before the China Daily story broke, John Kamm, an American businessman who campaigns for the release of Chinese political prisoners, told the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong that China's rate of prisoner executions has dropped by as much as 45% since 2001. Kamm, the winner of a 2004 MacArthur "genius" grant and the founder of the Dui Hua Foundation, which campaigns for human rights protections in Chinese prisons, said his group had collected data estimating the total number of executions last year at 7,500, down from 13,500 in 2001 — a total of 25,000 fewer executions over six years. The decrease, he says, is largely the result of China's attempts to burnish its international image in the run-up to the Beijing Olympics.

Pulling off a triumphant Olympics next August is the Chinese government's top priority at the moment, and success will be judged as much by how the rest of the world perceives the Games as how many medals China wins. "The Chinese are desperately worried a poor image could lead to poor attendance or low TV ratings at the time they most want to show off," Kamm said Thursday. "It'd be like if you threw a party and nobody shows up," or worse, if everybody "throws rocks at you."

Kamm is calling on the Chinese government to reduce executions by another 50% before the Games begin. "Concessions are often undone once a goal is reached," Kamm says. "But Beijing so badly wants a successful Games that if they can be convinced a move is necessary, they will do it."

Not everyone is as sanguine on the potential for the Olympics to leave a lasting change on China. A May UPI/Zogby poll showed that nearly 90% of Americans believed the Games would have no lasting effect on China's human rights practices. Meanwhile, 58% supported using the Olympics as a means to protest Chinese human rights policies.

Both Bequelin and Kamm agree that Beijing's criminal justice system needs drastic reform, starting with the disclosure of official statistics on prisoners. China's judicial system has more than 60 charges, including many non-violent crimes, which can warrant the death penalty. "If you can't measure the problem, you can't assess what must be done to fix it," Bequelin says. "As it stands, they're most likely executing innocent people every day."