BEIJING - Responding to criticism that
China cruelly and arbitrarily executes a large
number of its citizens each year, officials are
gradually moving toward what they say is a more
discreet way of killing its prisoners: execution
Human-rights critics say they may
look more like officially sanctioned roaming death
squads, which simply allow China to execute its
prisoners quickly, easily and out of the public
eye. Chinese legal officials counter that the
fleet of execution vehicles is a "more humane"
form of carrying out death sentences. One thing
for sure: they are a radical departure from
publicly held execution rallies organized in the
As opposed to the shootings that
took place in public, inmates
now executed in purpose-built vans in an almost
clinical environment. Prisoners are confined to a
bed, similar to an ambulance stretcher, and put to
death with lethal injections. The contents of the
drug cocktails used for the lethal injections are
mixed in Beijing and delivered to local
intermediate courts where the trials take place.
China developed its fleet of mobile
execution chambers slowly, after cautiously
experimenting with lethal injections for the first
time in selected provinces beginning in 1997. It
is now adopting them on a larger scale in more
localities. The exact number of vans being used is
a state secret. What is known, however, is that
Yunnan province alone has 18 mobile units in use.
"I think it is definitely progress for
China, and it shows more consideration both for
the people sentenced to death and for others"
(their relatives and the public), said Li Guifang,
vice chairman of the Criminal Affairs Committee of
the All-China Lawyers Association. "There is less
pain for the convicted."
activists point out that evidence from the United
States shows that lethal injection, too, inflicts
Beijing officials plan to assign
mobile execution to designated provinces, but
would not say which ones.
The move from
firing squad to lethal injection "demonstrates
tremendous progress in China's criminal-judgment
proceedings", Yin Yong, director of Zhejiang
province's Supreme Court, told the state media
First tried out in 1997 in
Yunnan province - a southwestern region bordering
the Golden Triangle and notorious for its drug
trafficking - death vans are now ready for use in
booming industrialized places where crime rates
have soared, such as the coastal province of
Zhejiang. That province plans to start using them
Human-rights groups claim
China executes more criminals every year than the
rest of the world combined. The exact number
remains a highly confidential state secret.
Amnesty International recorded at least 1,770
death sentences carried out in China in 2005, but
it says the real number could be as high as 8,000.
The mobile death fleet is being touted by
Chinese legal officials as the latest advance in
China's judicial system as Beijing tries to revamp
its international image ahead of playing host to
the 2008 Summer Olympic Games.
are now in vogue because they allow for death
sentences to be carried out without the usual trip
to the execution grounds and they are cheaper -
each execution van is priced at about 500,000 yuan
(US$60,000) and, of course, can be reused. Lethal
injections require only four people to assist in
the execution, while the practice of death by
firing squad needs numerous guards at the
execution site and along the road to the site.
The vans also prove that China has
abandoned a long-standing practice of public
executions. After China signed the United Nations
Convention against Torture in 1984, it issued new
regulations banning execution rallies. Rights
activists claim, however, that the rallies have
continued during the various "Strike Hard"
anti-crime crackdowns first initiated by the
government in 1983 and revived in 1996. But these
rallies no long happen in large cities where
Yet as mobile execution
chambers begin to roll silently into more and more
towns, making capital punishment easier and faster
to deliver, fears have risen among human-rights
activists and death-penalty opponents that China
is relying more on lethal injection because it is
harvesting organs of executed prisoners in an
effort to supply the country's growing market for
started organ transplants in the 1960s and now
perform between 10,000 and 20,000 transplants
annually, according to official figures. A kidney
transplant in China costs about $7,200, but this
official price could swell to $20,000 or even
$50,000 if the patient is willing to pay more to
obtain an organ sooner. Even those prices, though,
amount only to a fraction of the price for an
organ transplant in developed countries.
As patients from Malaysia, Japan, Hong
Kong and Singapore flock to China for transplants,
the business is bringing in thousands of dollars
to the country's underfunded health system.
Suspicions are growing abroad that the use of
newly developed execution vans may be linked to
this boom. The British Transplantation Society and
Amnesty International in May strongly condemned
China for harvesting prisoners' organs.
China carried out 8,000 kidney transplants
last year but only 270, or fewer than 4% of the
organs, came from voluntary donations.
"The use of mobile execution chambers
exacerbates existing problems with prison-related
issues in China," Sharon Hom, executive director
of Human Rights in China, wrote in an e-mail
interview. "It facilitates the black-market trade
in organ sales particularly because there is no
access for independent monitors, such as the Red
Cross, to prisons, detention centers and labor
In China, it is illegal to remove
organs without the permission of the person in
question or his family members, but critics say
these obligations are commonly violated, not the
least because of the secrecy surrounding such
operations. Regulations issued in 1984 stipulate
that the removal of organs from executed prisoners
should be "kept strictly secret, and attention
must be paid to avoiding negative repercussions".
Authorities routinely refuse to give
relatives access to bodies of executed prisoners,
cremating them quickly after the executions, says
Robin Munro, a British expert on China's criminal
"Once the body is
cremated, it is impossible to determine whether
any organs have been removed," she said.