Chinese Figh Crime with Torture and Executions
Craig Smith/The New York Times, September 9, 2001
Liu Minghe paused in a hospital room here to let a nurse take his blood pressure, which had surged dangerously in the few minutes since he began talking about how he had won his freedom from China's death row.
After she left, he begged off recounting in greater detail the torture that he said had led him to confess to a murder he did not commit.
''Let's just say it was 'forced interrogation and confession under duress,' '' Mr. Liu said, his speech slurring slightly because he is missing several of his lower teeth, which he said had been knocked out during his five-year incarceration.
Mr. Liu has been recuperating in a hospital in Hefei, 560 miles south of Beijing, since winning his release last month after having been sentenced to die in 1996 in one of China's ''strike hard'' campaigns, a frenzied national effort to purge the land of lawbreakers.
He managed to overturn his conviction on the grounds of insufficient evidence, thanks largely to his former Communist Party membership, his family's relatively high social position, and money. But many other people who are wrongly convicted and condemned to die in China may not be so lucky.
China routinely executes more people than all other countries combined. This year, though, has been far from routine. Without much notice at home or abroad, the government has begun sending unknown thousands of people to execution grounds, often after they have been tortured into confessing crimes that to foreigners seem minor.
Today China is in the midst of its third great wave of executions in the last quarter century, a campaign in which as many as 191 people have been executed in a single day, according to the state news media. Since President Jiang Zemin announced the crackdown in April, at least 3,000 people have been executed, and double or even triple that number have been sentenced to death. The pace of executions shows no sign of abating.
The wrongful conviction of Mr. Liu, and others like him, suggests that by the time the campaign ends in 2003 dozens -- if not hundreds -- of innocent people will have died in the capital punishment spree.
These periodic nationwide crackdowns, in response to rising crime and concerns about weakening social order, place huge pressures on the local police to solve crimes quickly, which they often do by extorting confessions through torture. In Hunan Province, newspapers recently reported that the police solved 3,000 cases in two days in April. Police in Sichuan Province reported that they had solved 6,704 cases, including 691 murders, robberies or bombings, in six days that same month.
The campaigns also pressure the courts to try the accused quickly, record the maximum possible number of convictions and show little mercy in sentencing.
Convictions are sometimes handed down within days of arrests. Appeals are processed briskly and executions are normally carried out within an hour after a sentence is confirmed. Usually, just a few months pass between an arrest and execution, occasionally only weeks.
The monthly tally of death sentences has become a kind of grim score card showing how each province is doing. But the real numbers remain a closely guarded secret. They are believed to be far higher than the confirmed tally, which has been compiled from press reports by people like Catherine Baber, a researcher at Amnesty International based in Hong Kong, or a Western diplomat in Beijing who does not want to be named.
Many, if not most, executions are not reported in the press at all. And many of the reports that are published simply say that a ''group'' of people were executed on a given day. A group can include anywhere from a few people to dozens. Amnesty International usually counts each group as just two.
Neither Ms. Baber nor the diplomat will venture to guess what the true number of executions might be. But both agree that this year's total will probably surpass 5,000. Some observers say the number could reach as high as 10,000.
It is also impossible to say how many of the people executed might be innocent.
Signs of Wrongful Justice
Certainly, many of them have been ordered to die for crimes, like bribery, that would earn them only brief jail terms in the West. But several wrongful convictions, like Mr. Liu's, have recently come to light, suggesting that many among the condemned are not guilty at all.
Mr. Liu, 63, married and a former associate professor at a technical institute in Wuhu, Anhui Province, was arrested during China's last great sweep in 1996, for the murder of Tao Ziyu, who was reputed to be his lover.
Her body was found floating shoeless in a shallow lotus pond not far from his campus residence. She had been strangled by someone's left hand, the police concluded.
An elderly woman reported seeing a woman arguing with a man near the pond shortly after Ms. Tao was last seen alive, visiting a friend who lived nearby. Mr. Liu, who is right handed, protested his innocence and said he could account for his whereabouts at the time.
But just before the end of the three-month period that police are allowed to hold suspects, Mr. Liu says they plunged him into brutal, round-the-clock interrogations.
His wife says he was handcuffed to a window so he had to either stand or hang from his wrists. She says he was only allowed to eat a few bites of food by lowering his head to a bowl. A document submitted to the court by his lawyers said that Mr. Liu had not been allowed to drink or close his eyes during the interrogation.
The police told him the questioning would continue for 10 days and that if he did not confess he would probably be executed, and offered him a lighter sentence if he did, according to his lawyers.
On the third day, Mr. Liu broke. In the videotaped confession, which his wife has seen, interrogators did most of the talking while a dispirited Mr. Liu answered ''yes'' to the scenario they presented.
Suspects in China are not allowed legal counsel, or any contact with the outside world while under interrogation. Mr. Liu's wife says her husband disavowed the confession as soon as he was allowed to see a lawyer.
''I couldn't bear it,'' she said he told the lawyer. ''If I didn't confess, I would have died.''
Despite the lack of physical evidence and Mr. Liu's alibis, the Wuhu Intermediate People's Court found him guilty of murdering Ms. Tao based on his videotaped confession. On Dec. 30, 1996, he was sentenced to death.
Mr. Liu appealed his conviction and his family enlisted the help of a legal expert from Beijing who focused on, among other inconsistencies in the prosecution's case, Mr. Liu's alibi and the coroner's estimated time of Ms. Tao's death.
A higher provincial court sent Mr. Liu's case back for a retrial in Wuhu, which found Mr. Liu guilty a second time but reduced his sentence to life in prison.
Retrials Without Limit
There is no limit in China to how many times a case can be retried, and Mr. Liu appealed his case twice more before the provincial court overturned his conviction. Before he was finally released on Aug. 8, his wife had nearly lapsed into despair. ''I have no tears left to cry,'' Ms. Wang said in an interview in July, squatting in her small living room, her knees bearing thick, plum-size scabs left from kneeling outside the courthouse to plead for her husband's life.
During the five years he was jailed, Mr. Liu says he was held in a series of 200-square-foot rooms crammed with as many as 26 people. He slept on boards or on the floor. He was rarely allowed outside and given few opportunities to exercise. For 16 months both his hands and feet were shackled, he says. He saw about 30 people sent to their deaths.
''My four limbs could barely move,'' he said last week, sitting in the hospital room, his white hair recently died black in an attempt to erase the wasted years. He said he collapsed shortly after he was released from prison and has since been hospitalized with severe diabetes and high blood pressure.
Mr. Liu might be dead today had not his longtime Communist Party membership and social position encouraged the provincial court to look more carefully at his case, his family and lawyers say. Money also helped. Mr. Liu's family has spent more than $36,000 on his defense, an enormous sum here.
But the vast majority of people executed in China have neither position nor money and their cases often get less scrutiny than Mr. Liu's, defendants' lawyers say.
Part of the problem is that Chinese prosecutors rely less on physical evidence than confessions to win convictions. According to a recent state press report, a government investigation found 221 cases of confessions extorted in six provinces during a two-year period ending in 1999. In 21 of those cases, the prisoners were tortured to death.
Even if the prisoner shows signs of abuse, prosecutors rarely question how the confessions were obtained.
Du Peiwu, a policeman in Yunnan Province, was released from death row last November after a group of car thieves confessed to shooting his wife and another police officer in April 1998, crimes for which Mr. Du had been convicted despite a clear alibi and lack of physical evidence linking him to the murders.
During his trial, he dramatically stripped off an outer layer of clothes to reveal the tattered garments in which he said he had been beaten, hung by his handcuffed wrists and shocked with a cattle prod to force his confession. The judges ignored his claim, according to press reports after he was freed.
Though forced confessions are technically illegal, the country's Public Security Ministry -- whose local bureaus are charged with investigating crimes -- rewards officers who extract confessions, while usually only lightly punishing those whose abuse goes too far.
The two policemen who tortured Mr. Du into confessing were sentenced last month to suspended one-year and one-and-a-half year sentences respectively.
Compounding the problem is an untrained and politically beholden judiciary.
Judges in China are not required to have any legal training, and few do. Most hold their positions because they have close connections with local government officials, who are eager for quick convictions.
''Veterinarians, drivers, anybody can get that job if they have good relations,'' said He Xing, a lawyer who teaches at the North China University of Law in Shijiazhuang, capital of Hebei Province.
People have been executed in recent months for everything from tax fraud to drug trafficking to stealing diesel fuel.
In China's far western province of Xinjiang, where a small but persistent separatist movement percolates among the mainly Muslim population, people have been shot for ''separatism,'' according to local newspaper reports.
Similarly intense spates of executions have played a grisly role in China's political upheavals over the last half century. In the first few years after the Communist Party came to power, as many as five million people were put to death, most after summary trials by makeshift tribunals.
A Third Wave of Executions
This year is the third surge in executions since the end of the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution.
The first came in 1983 when Deng Xiaoping announced the first ''strike hard'' campaign. Large white posters bearing the names and crimes of the condemned were pasted in public places across the country. Western observers estimated that more than 10,000 people died that year. The second ''strike hard'' campaign, the one that swept up Mr. Liu, began in 1996.
These periodic crackdowns and the widespread use of execution have received broad popular support in China, despite the likelihood of wrongful convictions.
A 1995 academic survey of 2,661 people found that fewer than 1 percent were in favor of abolishing the death penalty, while more than 90 percent thought there should be more.
Their opinions are colored, however, by underreporting of executions in the press and the government's secrecy about the annual total.
With increasing frequency, prisoners are formally arrested or sentenced at public rallies. Nearly two million people attended such rallies in Shaanxi Province in April and May. On June 25, more than 5,000 people attended a rally in Hubei Province, at which 13 people were sentenced to death, 8 of whom were executed immediately.
The condemned are normally paraded through town on the beds of open trucks, before being driven to the execution ground, often trailed by a caravan of onlookers.
Usually at an open field outside of town, the prisoners are made to kneel and are then shot at point blank range in the back of the head. Their organs are sometimes removed on the spot by medical staff and rushed to nearby hospitals for transplant operations.
The condemned are not allowed to see their families before they die. Once they are picked up for questioning, they never speak to a loved one again.
Often, the family does not even learn of the final sentence until the execution is over and they are notified to collect the prisoner's ashes from a crematory.