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    Greater China
     Jul 21, 2006
China's mobile death fleet
By Antoaneta Bezlova

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 vans.

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 past.

As opposed to the shootings that took place in public, inmates

are 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."

But rights activists point out that evidence from the United States shows that lethal injection, too, inflicts pain.

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 last month.

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 from September.

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.

The vans 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 foreigners live.

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 organ transplants.

Chinese hospitals 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 camps."

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 justice system.

"Once the body is cremated, it is impossible to determine whether any organs have been removed," she said.

(Inter Press Service)

China to 'kill fewer, kill carefully' (Mar 31, '06)


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