By Antoaneta Bezlova
BEIJING - Under pressure to reduce its huge number of annual executions as it
prepares to host the 2008 Olympic Summer Games, China is experimenting with
commuting death penalties to life sentences in exchange for compensation. But the
practice is proving contentious.
A string of cases in the southern province of Guangdong where convicted
murderers were given amnesty in exchange for cash paid to the victims' families
created a storm of controversy earlier this year. Similar practices have also
been reported in the coastal provinces of Shandong and Zhejiang.
The disclosures have sparked an intense debate about the price of human life in
a country which is routinely criticized for executing more people annually than
the rest of the world combined.
While impetus for reform of China's capital punishment system has been growing
in recent years, surveys indicate many Chinese continue to view the death
penalty as an important crime deterrent.
"The fate of criminals now seems to be determined by the depth of their
pockets," lamented Le Lan, a teacher at the Southwest University for
Nationalities, one of those who joined the public debate. "The seriousness
of law has been destroyed, further undermining the public's understanding of
Xu Shu, a factory worker from Shenzhen, agreed: "This is an insult to the
law. Can money now buy a life? What can't it buy?"
But some legal experts have defended the amnesty cases as a sign of nascent
reform. "The practices conform to the latest call from the Supreme
People's Court to 'hand out fewer death penalties and do so prudently',"
Jiang Qinghan, a lawyer with the Shanghai Guangmao law firm wrote recently on
the Internet forum of the China Daily newspaper. "If there is repentance
and the criminal's behavior does not merit execution, why is it necessary to
take a life?"
The dilemma faced by legal authorities is exemplified by the case of an elderly
woman, Deng Rongfen, from Dongguan in Guangdong province, reported in the local
newspaper Southern Weekend in March.
Deng's only son and the sole breadwinner in a family of five was stabbed to
death in May 2006. He had surprised three migrant workers robbing his family
house. The perpetrators were all given death sentences.
But even as justice was achieved on paper, Deng's family situation remained
insolvent. Deng had no money or means to send her grandchildren to kindergarten
or help her daughter-in-law raise them. The desperation of Deng's circumstances
eventually led to court-sanctioned negotiations between her and the accused and
the arrangement of a civil compensation package in exchange for reduction in
The judicial officials in Dongguan have defended the cash-for-amnesty move,
saying the commuting of the death penalty is done only with the consent of the
victim's family and it is not tantamount to "redeeming crime with
money". They argue that with the lack of a unified compensation system,
the recompense received by the victims' families can help relieve social
strain, prevent numerous appeals and even curtail unrest.
"Some 90% of our criminal cases involve migrant workers and both offenders
and victims are quite poor," Wang Chuanghui, a judicial officer with the
Dongguan Intermediate People's Court told the Southern Weekend.
Ironically, the publicizing of the practice appears to have achieved an effect
opposite to the one desired. It has ignited debates about social inequality at
a time of deep divisions in Chinese society caused by mounting income
While the country's headlong economic modernization over the past 30 years has
benefited many urbanities, people in the villages have remained on the fringes
of China's development, earning less than their city counterparts and lacking
adequate education and health care.
"The poor crime victims have no option but to accept the money," an
online writer calling himself "Rule of Law" wrote recently on
www.sina.com, one of China's most popular Internet portals. "They are, to
some extent, 'coerced' into compromise."
And as the country takes tentative steps towards reducing the number of
executions, legal experts foresee more conflicts.
"Chinese people are traditionally used to punitive justice and believe in
the death sentence as due punishment for serious crimes," Zhou Guangquan,
law professor at Beijing Tsinghua University, said at a round table on China's
compensation system organized by the Xinjingbao (The Beijing News) daily in
"Should the number of death sentences decline, we need an adequate system
of relief for the victims' families or we risk seeing people taking justice
into their own hands."
China reported fewer executions in the first five months of 2007 after the
country's Supreme People's Court regained its power to ratify or rescind death
sentences on January 1. The number of death sentences imposed by Beijing courts
has dropped 10%, which is reflected by a similar trend across the country, Ni
Shouming, the Court's spokesperson told the English-language China Daily on
"The lower courts have to be more prudent now," he was quoted as
saying. "If a case is sent back for a retrial by the highest court, it not
only means the final judgment is wrong, but also it is a matter of shame for
the lower court."
Centralizing the right of final review by the Supreme People's Court ends a
25-year-long practice of allowing lower courts to order executions. The
practice has long been denounced by legal-rights advocates for leading to arbitrary
rulings by provincial judges and an excessively high number of death sentences.
What is more, a string of wrongful convictions concealed by investigators has
come to light in recent years causing public outcry and adding pressure to
revise the system.
Chinese authorities classify the number of court-ordered executions as a state
secret. But Chinese legal experts believe the number of executions could be as
high as 10,000 a year. More than 60 offenses - including non-violent offenses
like corruption and tax evasion - are punishable by death.
(Inter Press Service)