By Matthew Brown
BEIJING — China’s use of the death penalty remains shrouded in secrecy and still outpaces the rest of the world combined, even after the nation’s execution rate fell sharply over the past decade, human rights activists said Tuesday.
Amnesty International reported 1,032 state-sponsored executions worldwide in 2016, excluding China, where the true number is unknown because the government considers it a state secret. The group said it believes China executed thousands, but it didn’t offer a more precise estimate due to a lack of accurate information.
The human rights group Dui Hua estimates about 2,000 executions took place in China last year, down from a 6,500 a decade ago, said the group’s executive director, John Kamm. The tally was based on research into lower-level court cases and contacts with government officials and Chinese and Western legal scholars, Kamm said.
Amnesty said its figure for worldwide executions excluding China represents a 37 percent drop from 2015. The United States recorded 20 executions, its fewest in 25 years, in part because of court rulings and shortages of chemicals used in lethal injections.
Yet as other countries shift away from capital punishment, China increasingly is seen as an outlier, said Amnesty International East Asia Director Nicholas Bequelin.
Government officials did not immediately comment on Amnesty’s report. But China’s chief justice, Zhou Qiang, told the national legislature last month that over the past decade executions were limited to “an extremely small number of criminals for extremely serious offenses.”
China has faced longstanding pressure from the international community to curb its use of the death penalty, which reached a frenzy in 1983 with 24,000 executions after provincial courts were given powers to mete out capital punishment, according to Dui Hua.
The nation also has faced criticism for harvesting organs from executed inmates, including for sale to patients from overseas. China banned the practice in 2015 but Bequelin said it’s impossible to know whether organ harvesting for profit has ceased because the legal system operates within a “black box” with little transparency.
“China is trying to have it both ways, both getting credit and allaying international pressure over the death penalty in the county, while maintain and enforcing an elaborate system of secrecy,” Bequelin said.
Oversight of death sentence cases was returned to China’s highest court, the Supreme People’s Court, in 2007. Since that time, the government has narrowed which crimes can bring capital punishment but still lists more than three dozen eligible offenses, including treason, separatism, spying, arson, murder, rape, robbery and human trafficking.
Chinese legal scholar Hong Daode contended that 90 percent of executions last year were for homicide cases.
“There has been a long tradition in China that the one that has taken people’s lives should pay with his own life,” said Hong, a professor of criminal law at China University of Political Science and Law.
However, Susan Trevaskes of Australia’s Griffith University, concluded in a recent study that close to half of all death sentences were handed down for drug crimes.
Efforts to reform how such cases are handled by the courts have been frustrated by the government’s attitude that all drug crimes constitute a threat to society, according to Trevaskes, author of the 2012 book “The Death Penalty in Contemporary China.”
That’s despite the fact that many perpetrators are low-level “mules” — typically poor, rural residents hired by traffickers to transport their illicit contraband but who reap minimal profit from the work, Trevaskes said.
Whatever the breakdown, Dui Hua’s Kamm said the number of executions in China remains a national embarrassment.
“Pushing for the Chinese government to release the number is perhaps the most effective way to drive it down,” he said.
Hong and others faulted Amnesty for claiming in its Tuesday report that verdicts on only 85 executions between 2014 and 2016 showed up on a supreme court website, out of at least 931 that the human rights group tallied through public news reports.
Among the cases omitted were the executions of foreigners for drug crimes and people accused of terrorism in China’s in Xinjiang Uyghur autonomous region, the group said.
But Hong said the website was never intended to provide a comprehensive database of executions and likely only includes verdicts intended to influence society or guide future trials.