Despite a Controversial Execution, China Curbs Use of the Death Penalty

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Luis Belmonte Diaz / Reprieve / Reuters

Akmal Shaikh, a Briton whose family says he suffers from mental illness, was executed by China for drug-smuggling

The international furor over China's execution of a British man convicted of heroin-trafficking has drawn attention to the country's harsh criminal-justice system. The execution has sparked a diplomatic row between China and the U.K., but global condemnation will do little to provoke reform. China is the world leader in the use of the death penalty — Amnesty International documented some 1,700 judicial killings in China last year, but the true total could be as much as three times that — and Beijing makes no apologies for its hard line. In a statement issued after the execution, a Chinese court said drug crimes were "serious criminal offenses" demanding harsh punishment.

Yet while China often complains that criticism by foreign governments amounts to outside interference in its internal affairs, there are signs that the rapidly modernizing country is curbing its use of the death penalty of its own accord. The reforms are modest, to be sure, but some observers see them as a rare bright spot amid an overall bleak trend for human rights in China.

Such progress came too late to save Akmal Shaikh, who on Dec. 29 became the first European in 50 years to be executed in China when he was given a lethal injection in the northwestern city of Urumqi. The 53-year-old Brit was convicted of smuggling 4 kg of heroin into China from Tajikistan. Shaikh's family had pleaded for Chinese courts to take into account his history of mental illness. The human-rights group Reprieve documented numerous incidents of erratic and delusional behavior by Shaikh, including his recording of a song, titled "Come Little Rabbit," that he apparently believed would lead to world peace. Reprieve says that drug traffickers preyed on Shaikh's hopes of becoming a pop star to dupe him into carrying drugs on a flight to Urumqi in September 2007.

The British government made dozens of appeals on Shaikh's behalf. Prime Minister Gordon Brown said he was "appalled and disappointed" that requests for clemency were denied and that he was "particularly concerned that no mental-health assessment was undertaken." The U.K. Foreign Office also summoned China's ambassador. China's Foreign Ministry rejected the criticism. At a recent briefing, spokeswoman Jiang Yu called complaints "groundless" and said China expressed "resolute opposition." She added that the U.K.'s response threatened to undermine the countries' bilateral relations.

In the past, the Chinese government has cited the need for deterrence and public support of the death penalty to justify its broad use of capital punishment. In online forums on Chinese websites, opinion over the Shaikh case tends to back the official stance. "We should stick to the Chinese law no matter what, instead of bending under the pressure from Western countries," wrote a commentator in a chat room on "Otherwise, we would only damage the dignity of China's judicial system."

Indeed, the case will have little effect on how China views the death penalty. "While there's some role for international opinion and international engagement with China on capital punishment, I think that the primary motive force for change and progress in the area of capital punishment in China is going to be internal," says Joshua Rosenzweig, Hong Kong–based manager of the Dui Hua Foundation, a U.S. human-rights group.

And there are signs of change. In 2007 China's Supreme People's Court resumed reviewing all death-penalty cases following public anger at a number of questionable convictions, among them the case of a man who was sentenced to 15 years in prison for murdering his wife — who later turned up alive. In the first half of 2008, the Supreme People's Court overturned about 15% of the death sentences that were forwarded to it, an official told the state-run China Daily newspaper.

Rosenzweig says the resumption of high court reviews is "probably the biggest area of progress in China in the past few years." According to a Dui Hua Foundation estimate, the number of prisoners executed annually may have fallen by as much as half from the 10,000 cited by a National People's Congress delegate in 2004. Even with such a decline, China still puts to death more people than the rest of the world combined — about 70% of the global total in 2008, according to Amnesty International.

The exact number is guarded as a state secret. Some scholars are urging more openness. Chen Guangzhong, a professor at China University of Political Science and Law in Beijing, wrote an article in the prominent Chinese publication Southern Weekend earlier this month arguing that the government should make execution statistics public. "Despite its sensitivity, [the death penalty] is an area that has been able to be discussed to a certain extent within the Chinese media by legal experts," says Rosenzweig, "which is one reason why I think that's where the force for progress will come, from within China."

That's of little comfort to members of Shaikh's family. On Wednesday they expressed "grief at the Chinese decision to refuse mercy" and thanked "all those who tried hard to bring about a different result," according to a statement released by Reprieve. But China's willingness to at least discuss the death penalty offers the slim hope that in the future it will become less of a source of anger and dismay at home and abroad.
With reporting by Jessie Jiang / Beijing