China threw out a number of death sentences in 2014, but is this a sign of real progress for the world’s top executioner? Chinese human rights lawyer Teng Biao comments.
I co-founded the non-profit China Against the Death Penalty network in 2010 and have been involved in many death penalty cases. As a result, I know that acquittals are very rare in China’s flawed judicial system. So I was somewhat surprised that a number of death sentences and convictions were overturned last year.
Hugjiltu, a teenager from Inner Mongolia, was one of them. He was cleared 18 years after his wrongful execution for murder.
In Hugjiltu’s case, his family had tried for years to prove his innocence. In the case of Nian Bin, [a shopkeeper] who had been convicted of murder, it took three appeals and six years before the court ordered a retrial that ended in his high-profile acquittal last year. If this feels like a long time, the fact is the process typically takes far longer. I know of lawyers and family members who have gathered evidence and appealed for 20 years or longer, and who are still waiting.
Playing to public opinion
Despite these well publicized acquittals, I am still skeptical. These cases captured attention, but I don’t see them as progress – they are not signs of judicial or political reform. To some extent, the acquittals are aimed at appeasing public anger over miscarriages of justice. In reality, top leaders do not want meaningful change.
Cases like Hugjiltu’s and Nian Bin’s reflect a problem with the whole judicial and legal system. Torture is strictly banned under Chinese law, but in practice it is very widespread. Police officers who use torture are rarely punished, and the evidence extracted by torture is used by judges even though the law forbids it. The main reason is that the judicial system is not independent. Another reason is that it is difficult for the media, which is controlled by the state, to report on cases of torture.
A long way to go
In China, any criticism of the State is highly sensitive. Human rights activists and lawyers have faced difficulties for speaking out on the death penalty. In fact, civil society as a whole in China is facing an increasingly shrinking space.
Still, people are discussing the death penalty – mainly on the internet and through social media, which is difficult to fully monitor. People can also receive more information from outside China online, so as a result, more people are thinking about the issue. But because access to information is tightly controlled, most people still see the death penalty as necessary and do not support its abolition.
China carries out the most executions in the world. In 2007, the Supreme People’s Court, China’s highest court, took back power to review death penalty cases. While scholars believe the number of death sentences has reduced since then, information on the death penalty is classified as a state secret, so no one knows for sure. We still have a long way to go.
Teng Biao is one of China’s most outspoken critics of the death penalty. He is currently a Visiting Fellow at Harvard Law School.
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