China conducted the most executions in 2016, according to an Amnesty International report into the death penalty around the world.
Amnesty International China researcher William Nee said while execution figures remained a state secret, he estimated China had executed thousands.
“There’s still a mentality of harsh punitive justice, and in many cases the death penalty is seen as a default option,” Mr Nee told SBS News.
Amnesty International arrived at its estimate by evaluating information from people sentenced to death and their families or representatives, non-governmental and intergovernmental organisations, field research, news reports and occasional semi-official disclosures in Chinese state media.
For example, in late 2016, Professor Chen Guanzhong, from the China University of Political Science and Law – who’s helping reform China’s criminal procedure law – was reported as saying: “From what I understand, in the last 10 years the overall number of death sentences [with immediate execution] has gone from a figure above 10,000 to a four-digit number.”
Mr Nee lauded China for introducing reforms to uphold transparency, such as the Supreme Court, which approves death penalty sentences, launching a website in 2013 called ‘China Judgment Online’. The database compiles death penalty verdicts and court documents from around the country.
“It was heralded as a breakthrough for transparency, and to be fair to the website, it is improving the way in which we know Chinese justice works,” he said.
“What we found, unfortunately, is that in terms of death approvals, it probably only contains a small fraction of the true estimate.”
Amnesty found 85 execution cases on the database, but between 2014 and 2016, it calculated 931 people were executed by trawling media reports.
“There are literally hundreds of cases in the Chinese media that are not in their database,” Mr Nee said.
The database also does not contain foreign nationals handed death sentences for drug-related crimes, contrasting media reports of at least 11 executions.
Mr Nee said Amnesty International recognised exeuctions in China were on the decline.
Historically, the death penalty has played a big role in the country, with capital punishment one of the Five Punishments during Dynastic China.
In the modern era, 24,000 were executed in 1983 alone, when provincial courts were given power to hand down the death penalty, said Mr Nee.
“The Chinese government itself has said it’s going to be transparent, and based on [its] principle of complete openness, if it wants people to take it seriously it should [be transparent],” Mr Nee said.
“[Until there’s transparency] it’s really difficult to know how to reform, whether or not [reforms are] effective… the public doesn’t have the information they need to have an informed public debate about the death penalty.”
Report sheds light on Vietnam executions
Vietnam classifies its figures on the death penalty as state secrets, but for the first time a report from Vietnam’s Public Security Ministry, made public in February 2017, led Amnesty International to believe there were more executions than initially believed.
A total of 429 prisoners were executed between 8 August 2013 and 30 June 2016 – an average of 147 per year, according to the report.
These figures make the country the third-highest executor in the world.
“The magnitude of executions in Vietnam in recent years is truly shocking,” Amnesty International’s Salil Shetty said.
“This conveyor belt of executions completely overshadows recent death penalty reforms.
“You have to wonder how many more people have faced the death penalty without the world knowing it.”
Executions around the world
Amnesty International calculated the global figure of recorded executions at 1,032, down from 1,634 in 2015.
Iran recorded the second-largest number of executions with 597, although it dropped by 42 per cent (977) from the previous year.
It is followed by Saudi Arabia (154, compared to 158 in 2015), then Iraq (88) and Pakistan (87, a decrease from 326 in 2015).
Together, these countries comprise 87 per cent of the total number of executions.
The US, for the first time since 2006, fell from its place in top five executors to seventh place behind Egypt.
There were 3,117 death sentences across 55 countries in 2016, Amnesty International calculated. In 2015, there were 1,998 sentences across 61 countries.
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