Amnesty urges China to come clean on capital punishment

Executions worldwide slide 37% in 2016 as China kills more than rest of world combined


China, the world’s biggest executioner, must come clean about its “grotesque” level of capital punishment, the rights group Amnesty International has said in its 2016 global review of the death penalty.

China keeps its official tally of those executed as a state secret but last year it put to death more people than all other countries in the world combined, Amnesty’s investigation showed.

Excluding China, states around the world executed 1,032 people in 2016, down 37 per cent from the previous year.

The world’s top five executioners were China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Pakistan.

The fall in executions worldwide was largely driven by a reduction in Iran, where they were down 42 per cent last year from at least 977 to at least 567, and Pakistan, down 73 per cent from 326 to 87.

In sub-Saharan Africa fewer executions were recorded but the number of death sentences more than doubled, largely due to a steep rise in Nigeria.

Judicial transparency

Chinese authorities enforce an elaborate secrecy system to obscure the scale of executions in the country, despite repeated claims it is making progress towards judicial transparency, Amnesty said.

Just four countries were responsible for 87 per cent of all recorded executions.

“China wants to be a leader on the world stage, but when it comes to the death penalty it is leading in the worst possible way – executing more people annually than any other country in the world,” Salil Shetty, Amnesty International’s secretary general said in a statement accompanying the report.

“It is high time for China to lift the veil on this deadly secret and finally come clean about its death penalty system,” said Mr Shetty. “Just a handful of countries are still executing people on a large scale. The majority of states no longer condone the state taking human life.”

Amnesty says hundreds of documented death penalty cases are missing from a national online court database in China that was initially presented as a sign of greater openness.

In March this year, China’s chief justice Zhou Qiang told a plenary meeting of the annual parliament, the National People’s Congress (NPC), that in the past decade, China had applied the death penalty “to an extremely small number of criminals for extremely serious offences”.

A 2007 decision that all verdicts involving capital punishment must be reviewed and approved by the supreme people’s court is believed to have significantly reduced the number of executions.

The US-based rights group Dui Hua estimated that about 2,400 people were executed in China in 2013, and it says that number remained more or less the same in 2014 and 2015.

Drug trafficking

The ultimate sanction is typically applied for murder, rape, robbery and drug offences, and in 2011, the courts were told to stop giving the death sentence for crimes such as smuggling cultural relics and rare animals and other non-violent crimes, although drug trafficking remains a capital offence.

“The Chinese government uses partial disclosures and unverifiable assertions to claim progress in reducing the number of executions yet at the same time maintains near absolute secrecy,” said Mr Shetty.

The Amnesty report showed the United States dropping out of the list of the world’s top five executioners for the first time since 2006.

There were 20 executions in the US last year, the lowest level recorded in any year since 1991. This is half what it was in 1996, and almost five times lower than in 1999, Amnesty said. The number of executions has fallen every year since 2009, except 2012 when it stayed the same.

The report showed that the scale of executions in Malaysia and Vietnam was higher than thought.

Information from Vietnamese media published in February showed that the country has secretly been the world’s third biggest executioner over the last three years, putting to death 429 people between August 6th, 2013 and June 30th, 2016. Only China and Iran executed more people during that period.

Parliamentary pressure in Malaysia revealed that more than 1,000 people were on death row, with nine people executed in 2016 alone.