The Death Penalty in China – Part 1
(Baltimore Sun) Doomed, then living to tell tale. By Gady A. Epstein. November 28, 2004.
The first time Jin Aiguo decided to confess to trafficking in heroin, he said, his police interrogators were being quite persuasive.
They had cuffed his hands together in an awkward position – one behind his back, the other stretched back over his shoulder – then threaded a wooden rod under his arms and lifted him off the ground until he agreed to sign the statement they had written for him.
“I would say, ‘I will sign! I will sign!’ But after they let me down, I would try to persuade them I did nothing wrong,” said Jin, a 32-year-old taxi driver. “And then they would use the next torture.”
On that day in August 2001, the police might not have known that they would have to inflict so much pain for so many hours to persuade Jin to sign, but they knew it would be worth the effort. If this taxi driver with no criminal history confessed, the interrogators would share in a bonus of at least $8,800 for helping the department meet a provincial quota for drug arrests.
The man would be executed, but that was of no concern.
Possibly as many as 10,000 people are executed in China every year, far more than in the rest of the world combined. The exact figure is a well-guarded state secret. Trafficking in drugs is just one of many crimes routinely punished here by a gunshot to the head or lethal injection.
But Jin’s case turned out not to be routine: Not only was he innocent, but he also lived to tell his story. So did another taxi driver, Yang Shuxi, who was also arrested in this impoverished northwestern city in 2001. Each man was set up by the police and sentenced to death; each, in an almost miraculous turn of events, was exonerated and freed last year.
During their time inside the system – 17 months for Jin, 22 months for Yang – they became familiar with the harrowing, mundane order of life on death row, where inmates learn to recognize the haunting sound of the condemned shuffling forward in their leg irons to meet their fate.
Their stories offer a rare glimpse into what it is like to face the worst elements of the Chinese justice system and survive: corrupt police, beatings and torture, the denial of counsel for months, court hearings with predetermined outcomes and the almost expected death penalty.
That it was these two taxi drivers who were placed on death row was an accident of fate. But the nature of police work in China, especially in this impoverished desert province, Gansu, almost ensures that if it had not been Jin and Yang, it would have been two other innocent men.
Situated in the remote northwest, Gansu is almost an afterthought, one of China’s poorest and least developed provinces, left far behind by the economic boom reshaping the coastal provinces to the east.
The most profitable indigenous business is heroin, for the poppy-growers, the refiners, the traders dealing from Central and South Asia to points east, and for the police who take payoffs to protect those people and earn bonuses for arresting them.
In the summer of 2001, south of Lanzhou, the Lintao County deputy police chief and his drug squad chief were far short of making their drug-arrest quotas, and their drug squad was among the worst-performing in the area. The chief of the prefecture-wide drug squad was also in danger of missing government quotas for arrests. So, too, was the deputy chief for the city of Lanzhou’s Xigu District.
With the pressure of high-profile government anti-drug campaigns, and with the reward of at least $2.40 per gram of confiscated heroin, the temptation to cheat, and cheat big, was great.
No model citizen
That summer, according to state media reports, all of those officers, and others, turned to Ma Jinxiao for help.
Itinerant and illiterate, the Ma portrayed in Chinese newspaper reports was not a model citizen. But he was a longtime police informant and friend to many officers in the region. At that point, his chief value to senior officers was that he was a willing and unscrupulous accomplice.
The money helped explain his willingness. From July 21 to Sept. 18, 2001, Ma set up four people on drug-trafficking charges and was paid $31,000 by the police for doing so, according to his confession, which was read aloud in court and described in the Lanzhou Morning News.
With one exception, Ma picked his dupes randomly. The exception, according to a detailed report this month in the Guangzhou-based newspaper Southern Weekend, was a prostitute who had angered one of Ma’s friends in the Gansu province police by reporting his solicitation of prostitutes to supervisors, almost getting the friend fired.
Ma was seeking to curry favor that summer with police in Xigu District, where his son had been arrested for stealing a bicycle, and the district deputy chief was complaining to Ma about needing to meet arrest quotas. So Ma shot two eagles with one arrow, as the saying here goes.
Ma gave the prostitute, surnamed Peng, two kilograms of heroin to transport, telling her it would earn her $1,200, according to state media reports. She was picked up on a well-traveled drug highway near Lanzhou on July 21, 2001, by the officer Ma wanted to please, Deputy Chief Zhao Mingrui, and fellow policeman Ni Xinggang.
Peng received a suspended death sentence for trafficking heroin and languished in prison for three years and 12 days before being released, more than 2 1/2 years after Ma confessed to setting her up. The officers were sentenced to prison terms shorter than the time Peng served. After the arrests, they received generous cash bonuses, possibly thousands of dollars each. Ma earned $5,600, according to his confession.
Ma quickly moved on to helping other senior officers meet their quotas, only now with random targets. Standing at a Lanzhou bus station on the afternoon of July 26, Ma climbed into a Volkswagen Santana cab and brought driver Yang Shuxi’s comfortable life to a crashing halt.
Yang, a 47-year-old father of four, was a young farmer of potato and wheat on the outskirts of Lanzhou who had seized a series of small opportunities opened up by China’s economic reforms in the late 1970s. His last big move was buying the Santana, and for the six months he drove it before picking up his last passenger, he was earning great money, about $1,500 a month.
Following the cracked, winding two-lane road from the modern city center to his nearby township of Agan is a metaphor for rapid descent. Crumbling brick buildings, hollowed-out factories and a filthy, garbage-strewn tributary of the Yellow River snake along the road under a silt sky. Chain-smoking inside his dimly lighted red-brick home, Yang talked about that day when he picked up his last passenger.
Ma had asked Yang to park in a storage lot of a lumber company, where a man on a motorcycle rode up and gave Ma a red nylon bag. Ma insisted on putting the bag in the trunk, then removed a copy of Yang’s identification from his glove compartment.
“I asked him why he did that, then he took a pistol from his pants pocket and pointed it at me,” Yang said. Ma demanded that Yang take the bag to the Binghe hotel in Lanzhou, for which he would be paid about $1,800. “If you cannot accomplish this,” Ma told him, “your life and the lives of your family members will be in my hands.”
Yang started driving back to the city, determined, he said, to turn the bag in to the police. But after about two miles, he was stopped by a police roadblock manned by more than 10 officers, all armed. Several pulled him from his car and began kicking and punching him, he said, the kind of gratuitous physical abuse that human rights experts say is not unusual upon arrest in China.
“I cried out, ‘What law of the country have I broken?'” he said. Then they put his shirt over his head, cuffed his hands behind his back and beat him to the ground. He cried out again and again, “What law of the country have I broken?”
‘I am the weak one’
The officer overseeing the arrest was Ding Yongnian, chief of the prefecture’s drug squad. With the red bag in the trunk, containing what police said was 3.3 kilograms of heroin, the arrest of Yang would be worth as much as $7,900 in bonuses for Ding and his officers.
The officers took Yang to a local police station, cuffed his hands behind his back to a bed frame and interrogated him as he stood there, while Yang protested his innocence. Then he was transferred to the prefecture’s drug-confiscation squad office, where his hands were cuffed in front of him to an upper bed bunk railing for the night, making him stand there so that he could not sleep.
The next morning, officers questioned Yang again, this time allowing him to sit. He had not had anything to eat or drink since his arrest, but they gave him nothing as he continued maintaining his innocence.
“I also told them, ‘You are the strong ones and I am the weak one. You are the agency with power, and I am the common person,'” Yang said.
That night, he was transferred to a crowded cell in the county detention center, where he would remain for almost two years. There was one long wooden platform for the 11 inmates, with no room for him to lie down and sleep. The next afternoon, his third day in custody, he ate his first meal since his arrest, a watery bowl of noodles.
Less than two weeks later, Jin Aiguo, too, had the misfortune of picking up Ma and taking him to the same lumber storage yard. There, after Ma had asked him to wait a while for a friend, Jin left the cab to go to the bathroom. When he returned, Ma told him that he could just drive off. Less than a mile down the road, Jin said, he was arrested by plainclothes officers led by Zhang Wenzhuo and Bian Weihong.
Officers took his cab away and returned 15 minutes later, saying they had found a blue canvas bag of heroin hidden behind the back seat. Jin figured it had been placed there by Ma or the police. Zhang, Bian and the other officers, in line for a bonus of as much as $7,500, saw things differently and were determined to extract a confession.
Human rights activists, scholars and diplomats say the Chinese police are well trained in torture – despite official protestations to the contrary – and the treatment Jin describes seems to bear that out.
For 15 or 16 hours, from about 1 p.m. Aug. 11 until the predawn hours of Aug. 12, Jin was tortured in several ways, each crude but imaginative, excruciating and effective.
The first method was to lift Jin with the wooden rod under his uncomfortably cuffed arms. The next technique was to shackle his feet, tie his left arm behind him with a length of rope, then lift the rope so that his arm would be twisted painfully.
After that, Jin said, they would force him to sit down with his legs crossed, his feet shackled and his upper body bent forward to the concrete floor. An officer would sit down on him, putting his full body weight on Jin’s legs, then grab Jin’s ears for leverage as he pulled himself up and down, causing the cabdriver to scream.
Recalling the scene recently in a Lanzhou coffee shop, Jin laughed nervously as he demonstrated how his head was pulled up and down by the ears to increase his suffering.
“Of course, I cried out. I shouted, ‘Save my life!'” Jin said. “It was summer, and it was very hot, and one of the police officers took off one of his smelly socks and put it in my mouth.”
Finally, Jin said, he agreed to sign and affix his fingerprint to the four-page confession the police had written for him. Just before he did, he said, “I defended myself for the last time. I said, ‘I did not do this. You should conduct an investigation and check the fingerprints on the bag.'”
In response, an officer kicked him to the ground, and Jin signed without reading.
“At the time, I didn’t care about reading through the document. They were torturing me. I could not think of anything more,” he said. “I was scared to death.”
Waiting to die
Jin was immediately transferred to the Lintao County detention center, where he slept at first on a concrete floor in a cell that contained 12 to 18 people. During his 17 months in the cell, his fellow prisoners, like Yang’s, included murderers, rapists and robbers.
From that point on, Yang and Jin, though in different detention centers, led similarly bleak existences while waiting to die. Each received two 10- to 15-minute breaks a day, one in the morning and the other in the late afternoon, to leave the cell and walk around or use the bathroom.
They were fed two starchy meals a day. The first meal consisted of boiled potatoes and steamed buns. The second meal was the same for Jin. Yang got a small bowl of noodles. Their drinking water was an unclean, milky white, and they suffered intestinal problems, rashes and other ailments in their crowded cells.
In the winters, the barred, open-air windows exposed their unheated cells to the elements. There was little to distract the prisoners from the numbing routine, except for the days when the guards came for those sentenced to die, usually before major national holidays, when a group of prisoners would be trucked to a remote location and shot.
The authorities never came to Jin’s cell while he was there, he said, but he knew when people were being taken away from other cells at his prison.
“The cells are usually very quiet. You can hear when people are walking or when the wind blows,” Jin said. “The condemned prisoners all wear shackles on their feet, and when they walk you can hear the loud clang-clang sound.”
Yang and Jin were not shackled at the feet at first, because they had to be put through the motions of the justice system. Their fate, though, was almost predetermined.
Not many people enter the Chinese criminal justice system and escape it with a not-guilty ruling. About one-half of 1 percent of defendants receive not-guilty verdicts before appeal, according to official statistics, and the government does not provide figures on the success rates of appeals.
Fewer still are sentenced to death and then exonerated and allowed to live free again. The parallel journeys of Yang and Jin through the justice system help explain why.
First, their attorneys, hired for them by their families, could not see them for months, until a few weeks before their days in court, and then only once and briefly.
Such obstruction by police, prosecutors and court officials is common. They consider defense attorneys “detrimental” to conviction, in the words of a scathing Amnesty International report issued this year on China’s use of the death penalty.
Staging a defense in such cases can be extremely difficult anyway. Chinese law allows prosecutors to charge defense attorneys with faking evidence for their clients, which tips the scales of justice and weighs heavily on the minds of lawyers.
In these two cases, as in many others in China, the lawyers proved irrelevant. The court hearings for Yang and Jin, their only chance to protest that they had been set up, lasted 40 minutes each. A committee made up of Communist Party members had decided the defendants’ fates well before they stepped into the courtroom.
Such committees meet behind closed doors to decide the outcomes of difficult or major cases, including death penalty cases, before they are heard in open court, even though the accused and their attorneys have yet to present their defenses. Chinese law does not explicitly guarantee criminal defendants the presumption of innocence, and in the many cases deemed important enough to be handled by these party-led committees, defendants also get no chance to assert their innocence at a meaningful trial.
The two taxi drivers did not know this, and they made impassioned declarations of innocence in court. It was difficult to remember what to say, they recalled, because in the courtroom, each saw his family for the first time since his arrest.
“I saw my wife, and she started to cry. I started to cry as well, and I forgot everything,” Yang said of his appearance in court Jan. 6, 2002, more than six months after his arrest.
He was convicted and, at a hearing three weeks later, sentenced to death.
Jin, at his hearing before he was sentenced, turned to look at his family, feeling “heartbroken.”
After they were sentenced, both were fitted with the leg irons of the condemned.
During that time, Yang’s wife was spending the family into debt trying to buy Yang’s freedom. Some criminals are able to bribe their way out of prison, even out of death sentences, but despite giving more than $12,000 to people with “connections,” Yang’s wife was not able to get her innocent husband off death row.
But, by a stroke of luck, the events that led to the freeing of Yang and Jin were in motion, though they did not know it.
In September 2001, Ma had helped Lanzhou police make one of their biggest busts in years, involving another cabdriver, this time with 10 kilograms of heroin in his car. After earning a total of nearly $12,000 for setting up Yang and Jin, he got nearly $17,000 from police for this arrest, according to his confession.
The catch was that the bust was too big, and it attracted attention from higher-level authorities, who determined that the case was fixed. The Lanzhou police, according to state media reports, tracked down Ma, who soon confessed to cooperating with police to set up Jin.
When provincial police ordered a test of Jin’s bag of 3.7 kilograms of white powder and found minute traces of heroin, they ordered a review of all drug busts in 2001, according to Southern Weekend. Within a short time, Ma confessed to setting up Yang and the prostitute, Peng. The set-ups were unraveling.
Yet except for the driver caught in the last, biggest bust, who was released less than two weeks after being picked up, the unraveling was inexplicably slow, perhaps because the influential officers involved fought to preserve their busts. Yang and Jin remained confined, their leg shackles still on, waiting to be informed of their date of execution.
Their good fortune was that their deaths were likely to be postponed until late June 2002 because the government observes the United Nations’ international anti-drug day on June 26 by executing drug traffickers en masse. When the time came, they had heard, they might expect to be led off in the back of a truck to a site in the countryside, then shot in the back of the head at close range.
Instead, within several months the leg shackles came off when the Gansu Provincial High Court, presumably apprised of Ma’s confession to the two men’s set-ups, ordered that their cases be reviewed because of an apparent lack of evidence.
Appellate courts in China rarely do more than call for a review or retrial, in part to avoid embarrassing lower-level judges, according to legal experts and Amnesty International’s report. Though the high court had effectively spared the lives of Yang and Jin, China’s timid appellate tradition cost them – and the prostitute Peng – months of freedom.
Jin got his high court reprieve in March 2002, but he was not released until the next January. Yang’s ruling was made in April 2002, but he remained in prison for more than year, until May last year. Peng, the first to be arrested, was the last to be released, in August this year.
The officers who sent them to prison were at first commended, then prosecuted as the cases fell apart. Bian Weihong, who helped arrange Jin’s arrest, was awarded the Excellent People’s Policeman Award at the end of 2001, and his drug squad, which had been rated so poorly six months earlier, won a commendation and a bonus of nearly $9,000.
Bian, a previous winner of numerous national drug-fighting awards, is missing after being sentenced to three years in prison, according to state media.
His accomplice, Zhang Wenzhuo, also honored and compensated for helping meet the arrest quotas, has received the harshest sentence of any of the officers – 10 years in prison for abuse of power and twisting the law for personal gain, according to state media.
Ding Yongnian, who set up Yang, was given a six-year prison term that was reduced to three on appeal, according to state media. A previous winner of several national drug-fighting awards and of Excellent People’s Policeman honors, Ding blamed the drug-crime quotas for contributing to his downfall. “The responsibility should be taken not only by myself, but by everyone,” he said in court, according to the Lanzhou Morning News.
The officers who arranged the biggest Lanzhou bust, the one that attracted officials’ attention, appear not to have been punished.
Police officials in the jurisdictions declined requests for interviews. Their wariness is understandable, for the case has become a minor media scandal in recent months, enabling Chinese journalists, unable to report broadly on police misconduct because of official media controls, to expose the police’s abuse of power and the dangers of the quota system.
Generally uninformed by the state-controlled news media about the pervasiveness of such problems, even some of the victims of this system say that it works well. Yang and Jin view their cases as rare exceptions resulting from the actions of a few rogue officers. They want more compensation – Yang was paid about $4,500 and Jin $3,000 – but they express no ill will toward the system that nearly took their lives.
“Before, I had no contact with the police or the courts, but through this case, I still feel that rule of law in China is progressing,” Jin said. “If all of the people involved were muddle-headed, right now I would be a part of the yellow earth.”
Communist Party leaders view their harsh justice system as a necessary means of social control, but in their campaign to promote the rule of law, they are contemplating an important step forward. The Supreme People’s Court might soon begin reviewing all death penalty cases, a job it currently leaves almost entirely to the provincial high courts.
For reasons bureaucratic, legal and political, top-level review of all capital cases would almost certainly result in a reduction in executions. Quotas and bonuses that probably increase the numbers on death row will continue, however, because poor provinces such as Gansu use them to supplement the incomes of poorly paid officers, and the central government views them as an effective crime-fighting incentive.
In February, the Ministry of Public Security, concerned that many murder cases were going unsolved, launched a national campaign urging jurisdictions to solve all their murder cases, setting aside $360,000 for cash bonuses for police departments.
The departments responded. Through the first seven months of this year, 1,273 cities, counties and districts reported that they had solved every murder case, and the national rate for solving murder cases was a remarkable 81.1 percent.
The ministry, pleased with the early results, recently announced that the campaign will run at least three years.
The Death Penalty in China – Part 2
(Boxun) Armed policemen explain how the death penalty is carried out. November 26, 2004.
Most ordinary citizens have no chance of going to the killing field to witness executions, so this has added layers of mystery to the process. There are all sorts of urban legends about those who are shot and those who shoot them. This is a collection of descriptions provided by a number of armed policemen who have taken part in executions.
The following details are provided by an armed policeman in Zhengzhou (Henan Province) who has participated in multiple executions.
1. Those who carry out the death penalty are armed policemen.
The masses are not sure about what type of persons have the power or ability to legally take the life of a criminal. Ever since the founding of the nation, public security officers have been responsible for carrying out death sentences. Since the reform of 1982, the newly formed armed policemen are responsible for this special assignment. Executions are part of their normal duties. Each armed policeman have undergone stringent training in this regard. But this duty is not performed by just anyone, as the person must have good political and military characteristics as well as strong psychological qualities. The executioners are therefore the most outstanding people from the corps.
“According to urban legends, the executioners wear surgical masks, gloves and dark glasses. This is just a legend, which may happen in remote areas. In the cities, this does not occur because the only reason for armed policemen to wear gloves is to ward off the cold and they wear dark glasses to fend off the sun’s rays. In practice, nobody really uses those things because they get in the way of the execution. The dark glasses affect vision and the gloves affect the handling of the gun. It is also alleged that you have to earn three merit points before being allowed to execute prisoners. That is even more ridiculous. Executing prisoners is just one of the many duties of the armed policemen.”
2. The bullets used to execute criminals are specially prepared.
“On one occasion, someone asked me if it is true that we have to bayonet someone who doesn’t die as a result of the first shot. How can that be!? We have a stringent set of procedures here. When the armed policemen are given the assignment, they have to undergo at least two days of training. At the killing field, they are required to use only one shot. The stringent requirement is based upon two reasons: the solemnity of the law as well as humanitarian considerations. The bullets used to execute criminals are specially prepared to increase the damage to the brain cells, but they are not the ‘explosive bullets’ that exist in folk legend.”
“Each condemned person is brought to the field by at least four armed policemen. The executioners has only one bullet in his gun, so he is required to be highly accurate. If there is an error, his assistant is the one who has to apply the coup de grace. It is wrong to think that the bayonet is used if the first shot does not kill immediately.”
3. On the night before the execution, the cadres at the detention facility will stay in the prisoner’s room.
“When the final verdict is handed out, the detention facility will make administrative arrangements. First of all, the prisoner is transferred to a different room and the cadres will stay there. Basically, the idea is that they have to watch over the condemned persons to make sure that they do not mutilate themselves, commit suicide or injure others. Supposedly, on the night before Zhang Jinchu was executed, the facility director personally stayed in his room.
“Almost all condemned prisoners will write to their families. Those who are not educated well enough will ask others to write on their behalf. Still, there are some who say nothing or who cry. It is an extraordinary time for the prisoners on the nights before the execution. For humanitarian reasons, most of their basic requests will be granted. They can eat whatever they want, they can smoke as much as they want to but they are not allowed to drink. Usually, they won’t feel like eating anything and they can’t sleep either. Most of them will write their families, and they keep writing non-stop. Most of those who just watch the outside through the windows are people who came from the outside and rove around to commit crimes. Most of the prisoners will stay up all night with eyes open, without anyone knowing what they are thinking about inside their heads.”
4. It is necessary to find a killing field outside the city each time.
One executioner tells this writer that up until the moment that they get on the transport vehicle, they still don’t know where the killing field is. By discipline, they cannot ask.
“He feels that this is normal. It is like that, but his description is not necessarily universal. No matter where it is, the planning of the killing field is very complicated. In places such as Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, there are fixed locations. In Zhengzhou, due to various factors, there is no fixed location as yet. Therefore, the killing field is different each time.
“We cannot go out and scout the locations during the day because it attracts too much attention. So we usually go out at night. Also, we cannot go in the official court vehicle as we must do so discretely. There is no security set up at the killing field beforehand. The location is highly secret, being known to just a few people. In Zhengzhou, it is harder and harder to find an ideal killing field. There are several demanding requirements for the location: the road traffic must be ideal; it must not be too far away from the highways; it must have enough space; there must not be too many spectators; it must be easy to carry out the action; there must be a barrier to make sure that a stray bullet won’t injure anyone; and things must not be allowed to go awry.
“Sometimes, it is already 2 pm in the afternoon and we are still going around the city. Usually, two killing fields are selected, with one being the backup in case of the unexpected happening. But there has never been any special circumstances in Zhengzhou for that to happen. I was particularly happy with one location, but after a couple of times, the local people deliberately bricked up the place to make it unusable. As Zhengzhou develops economically, the urban sprawl is spreading quicker and quicker and it gets more difficult to find an ideal location.”
5. Some condemned have their trouser legs tied up with hemp ropes.
“Indeed, this is true. Many criminals are ruthless when they committed crimes while disregarding the value of the lives of others. But when he is staring at his own death in the face, he can be scared to the point of having contorted facial expressions and become a mental wreck. When the verdict is handed down, some condemned prisoners will turn ashen grey and their legs and even the whole body will be trembling. Even before the verdict is read out fully, some people are urinating in their pants and that is not uncommon. On May 7, 1995, thirty prisoners were executed and one of them collapsed with white foam coming out of his mouth. When the armed policemen pulled him up, he was like a pile of soft dirt. He was a coward who had no feelings when he murdered a child who was begging for mercy.
“Many of these prisoners lose their sanity when they have to face their own deaths. In order to avoid unnecessary complications such as the loss of bladder or stomach control, we tie up their trouser legs with hemp ropes. Of course, most outside observers will not be able to spot such details.”
6. “The Red Terminator” does not remember the face of the condemned.
Someone people say that the condemned prisoners will speak to the armed policemen before the execution. Actually, this is only a speculation.
“I am an executioner. When the assignment is handed down, I only know the number of people, each of whom has been assigned a number. I don’t know their names and I don’t know their crimes. We only go by the numbers. When the prisoners is turned over to us, we have only several minutes of contact with them. On the transport vehicle, the public security officers may attempt to chat with the prisoners in order to put them at ease. But we are not allowed to speak to them at all.
“Sometimes, the criminals will tell us, ‘When the moment comes, please do it as quickly as possible so that I won’t suffer.’ Actually, even if I wish that I could torture these evil people, we have our discipline and we have only one bullet in the gun. When the moment comes, our only thought will be to get it over with that one shot. This is the right conferred to us by the people, and we are proud of it. When the gun goes off, things go red everywhere. Sometimes, the brain tissue of the prisoner may splash back onto our faces and that is really disgusting. Sometimes, people may take a while to die. At those moments, I have an indescribable feeling about how easily a person’s life can be terminated in such a pathetic manner.”
The armed policeman who uttered those words is only 24 years old. He has already executed 23 prisoners. He said that his strongest reactions after executing someone is, “Never commit crimes! Never become an enemy of the people!”
I have participated in executions for half a dozen times, the most recent being in 1995. At the time, I was in the anti-riot squad. It was a summer day after the rain, and the killing field was a garbage dump. We faced the sea and suddenly a water-spout appeared. I thought this was extraordinary, but the local people assured me that it was a common sight. What I remember most was the stench of the garbage. I and another comrade escorted a 23-year-old male who was guilty of murdering an elementary school student during a robbery. On the way to the killing field, he kept saying, “I deserve to die. I have incurred the wrath of the people.” Eighteen people were executed that day, including one who was executed in secret because he was a police colleague who committed a murder during a robbery.
I also remember escorting a 57-year-old peasant who was found guilty of deliberate murder. He kept saying, “I did not assault him until he came to my home” and he did not think that he deserved to die. In order to change the subject, I asked him what he ate at the prison. Then he got diverted because he got to eat rice for the first time last night in eight months because he only had wotou (窝头) before. I asked him if his family has come by to visit and he said nobody came but they had sent some new clothes that he was now wearing. He was calm. I looked at this clothes and they didn’t impress me. Since he had to be secured with ropes, he even had his trouser legs bounded with rope. His clothes were torn. So I brought the verdict document to him and I told him that he did not lose anything in the bargain because one life was being traded for another (at the time, I could not think of anything better to say). He agreed, and he was cooperative all the way to his execution.
There was another 60-something-year-old man, who made off with more than 600,000 yuan in graft payoffs. In the end, more than 200,000 yuan were still unaccounted for, so he got the death sentence. He was crying out that he was innocent all the way, so we had to pull the rope around his neck to stifle him and we almost strangled him. At a moment like that, we don’t worry about anything else other than accomplishing our specific mission.
The gun is fired by an armed policeman aiming at the back of the head. The rehearsal takes place for two days in a row beforehand. There is a shallow ditch in front of each prisoner. The prisoners kneel in front of the ditch. Upon the order, “Bang” goes the gun and the blood and brain issues are splattered forward and the person topples over. Then it was time for us to turn around and leave. Sometimes, we may hear one or two shots behind us. That would be the medical doctor firing the coup de grace. The prisoners are already dead, but if their bodies are still stirring about, they are given another shot. We get back into the vehicle and we look outside the window. The prisoners’ heads are covered with plastic bags which collect the blood. The bodies are place into cardboard coffins and loaded onto trucks. Sometimes, the coffins are too short, so that the legs show on the outside. The trucks go directly to the crematorium.
There are no spectators at the scene of the execution. We maintain three rings of security. Outsiders are kept far away, such that they cannot even hear the gunshot sounds. On our way back, nobody says anything because we are overwhelmed by the feeling that life can be so cheap.
I have acted as the guard in two executions, and I was about 10 meters away from the actual executions.
I remember that one prisoner telling the armed policeman: “Don’t get nervous! If you get nervous, you make me nervous too!”
I remember that one time, a prisoner turned around to tell the prison supervisor (note: the prisoner supervisor was required to be present at the execution), and said: “Supervisor, I thank you for taking care of me. I hope to come back to visit you some day for a drink.” This was enough to make prison supervisor turn as white as a sheet, but we thought it was funny.
Over here, all executions are done by armed policeman at the detention center. Each time, two men are assigned to a prisoner, one to execute and another as the back-up.
- We use an automatic rifle with only one bullet loaded.
- After shooting, the medical doctor uses a metal rod to pick up the shell casing and then the representative from the prosecutor’s office will pronounce: “The prisoner is dead after one shot.”
- We have never encountered the need for a coup de grace. The automatic rifle is fired right against the back of the head, and there is no way to miss.
- When the prisoner is brought down from the truck, he is basically motionless. He is made to kneel on the ground. Then the armed police squad leader yells, “Ready!” The armed policeman aims the rifle at the back of the head while the assisting armed policemen holds the prisoner up by the left shoulder. The squad leader then orders, “Fire!” and the shot is fired.
- This was how it worked in every execution that I have attended. The most memorable occasion was seven executions in one day (including one female guilty of deliberate murder) on the white snow by a riverbank.
The death penalty here is carried out by the judicial police.
When we arrive at the killing field, the prisoners are made to kneel down. We tell them to open their mouths because if the bullet passes through their mouths, they won’t look too bad afterwards. Then we aim at the back of the head according to the 54 style and we pull the trigger. Usually, they die with one shot and there is no need for a coup de grace.
The death penalty is presently carried out by the judicial police using poison injection. In the past, the executioners are selected among new recruits in the armed police. The prisoners are brought to the execution field and forced to kneel down in a row. The executioners are armed with rifles carrying bayonets and they stand about two steps away from the condemned. Then the medical doctor points the bayonet towards the position of the heart from the back, in order to ensure that the bullet will hit the heart. After confirming the identity of the subject, an armed police officer will verbally order the death sentence to be carried out.
The atmosphere on the killing field is terrifying, so some new recruits are bound to be scared. Some will not be able to pull the trigger. Other will jump aside before they fire (usually, to the right). After firing the first shot, the medical doctor will come forward to examine. If the inmate is not dead yet (normally, the first shot does not kill immediately), then additional shots will be fired. The most that I have ever seen is five shots.
After verifying that the prisoners are dead, the public security, court of law and the armed police personnel will withdraw. The doctors on the side will rush up to remove the body organs if nobody wants the body.
In Hainan, the death penalty is carried out by not shooting at the head. I understand that elsewhere on the mainland, they shoot at the brain from behind. As a result, the heads are usually blown off.
This is what I usually see. I heard that one prisoner was especially resilient and just would not die. In the end, an armed policeman had to shoot him eight times until his head looked like a beehive.
I do not believe there are any organ sales in my district. The corpses of the prisoners are transported directly to the crematorium.
Our killing fields are not fixed, as there are basically two different situations.
In the typical situation, the armed policemen proceed in the morning to the prison and take out the prisoners who are tied up with ropes. They are usually taken out eight at a time. If there are more than eight, then it may be done over two or more days to execute all of them. Usually this is done at around 8 am. The killing field is a small place with limited space. We go to the command center to listen to the final verdicts for the prisoners read out one at a time. After all the verdicts have been read out, the armed policemen escort them to the small open area behind the detention center. Then each is shot with one bullet from an automatic rifle.
In the second situation, there is a large meeting to read the verdict openly to the public. Afterwards, the prisoners are taken to a killing field whose location varies. We once did it on the roadside of a newly built highway on the south side of the city. After the transport vehicle arrived at the spot, the traffic police immediately stopped all traffic. The entire process from the moment that the prisoners were brought down from the transport vehicle to the shooting itself took less than one minute. The hospital ambulances were waiting on the side to remove the body organs.
While the verdict is being announced, the prisoner has a small rope around the neck. If he should start to yell out that he is innocent, the judicial policeman will yank on the rope to prevent that. One female prisoner (who was found guilty of murdering people via poisoning) was choked until her facial expressions became completely contorted so it must have been tough. The prisoners go quietly, and I have never heard anyone yelling “I will come back and be another hero in twenty years’ time.”
The most disgusting execution that I have witnessed was truly inhumane. On the night before the execution, the squad leader of the judicial police came to the detention center and assembled all those who were scheduled to be executed the next day. Then he waved a small flag and pronounced in a heavy local accent: “In order to express the humanitarianism of the revolution during your execution, we will rehearse once. Stand at attention! Kneel down!” Then came the sounds of guns being loaded. It was easy to imagine how the prisoners felt, because this was worse than death. It was fucking torture.
So far, these are just words. Part 3 contains a series of photographs about how such an execution is carried out. You are warned that the photographs are EXTREMELY GRAPHIC. But you can’t be thinking about the death penalty properly as long as the physical act is still an abstraction. This is what it is like.
There are two principal reasons why people object to the death penalty.
First, it is cruel and unusual punishment. Without question, blowing half of someone’s head off is exactly that.
Second, the death penalty may be administered wrongly to innocent people, especially those who are poor and marginalized. Part 1 contains the case histories of two innocent people who were lucky to be able to get off. The probability of wrongful execution can be reduced with an effective system of legal representation.
This becomes a matter of social prioritization. In the United States, a death penalty inmate can file appeals with free legal representation. The process may take 10 years and tens of millions of dollars before all appeals are exhausted. This is the same government system that is being slammed for failing to provide adequate social services to large numbers of socially vulnerable people. There are many more poor and desperate people in China who need help.
This is not helped by the fact that the detailed statistics and cases are treated as national secrets in China. It is alleged that more than 10,000 executions occur each year. The media provide the details on a small number of cases, but they are the most notorious cases such as mass murderers (e.g. Ma Jiajue). This is a deliberate strategy in that anyone who objects to the death penalty in principle will find himself seeming to defend evil incarnate instead. This is the same strategy that is used in banning Internet sites (e.g by highlighting the most obnoxious pornographic sites) and books (e.g. by highlighting the most repulsive pornographic novels). Meanwhile, there is no sense of how many innocent people might be executed each year.
There is the alternative of a life sentence in lieu of execution. In the United States, it will cost the state more than one million dollars to place a person in jail for life under standard conditions. This is the same government system that is being slammed for failing to provide adequate social services to large numbers of socially vulnerable people. There are many more poor and desperate people in China who need help. Jail conditions in China are significantly worse, so that sentencing someone to life in prison is cruel and unusual too.
I don’t know what the answer is.
There will be those who think the answer is democracy, by kneejerk reflex. No, it isn’t. Suppose you let the people decide on this: either you shoot the 10,000 people per year, or else you pay 100 yuan per year for their life sentences. How do you think they are going to vote? Shoot them. ASAP.
The Death Penalty in China – Part 3