Photo: iStock/Getty
Photo: iStock/Getty

Lack of transparency in relation to enforcement of terrorism and drug laws in China is identified as a growing area for concern by Amnesty International in a report published this week.

China’s Deadly Secrets, a companion to the organization’s annual report on capital punishment around the globe, notes that the country has sought greater diplomatic, military and law enforcement co-operation from other countries in its attempts to combat terrorism and stem the drug trade. However, it flags a lack of understanding internationally as to how the law is applied in such cases as a concern.

Charges of “terrorism” or “extremism” are cited as a possible smokescreen for broad persecution of religious minorities and individuals who criticize the Chinese government. The authors also note that drug-related offences do not belong to the category of “most serious offenses” to which the death penalty should be restricted under international law.

Amnesty’s annual report reveals that China remains the top executioner in the world, with thousands killed by authorities each year.

The human rights NGO says China executed thousands of people in 2016, more than all the other countries around the world put together. However, the true extent of the use of the death penalty in China “still remains unknown” as the data is kept secret.

Excluding China, 23 states around the world executed a total of 1,032 people in 2016, a 37% decrease from the 1,634 in 2015, when the organization recorded the highest number of executions in a single year since 1989. Other countries making up the world’s top five executioners in 2016 were Iran (at least 567), Saudi Arabia (at least 154), Iraq (at least 88) and Pakistan (at least 87).

Despite the significant year-on-year decrease, the overall number of executions in 2016 remained higher than the average recorded for the previous decade, Amnesty said.

Executions Worldwide 2016-01

New disclosures in Vietnam and Malaysia also found that the numbers of executions in those countries were higher than previously thought. Vietnam executed 429 people from August 6, 2013 to June 30, 2016. The figures were first revealed in Vietnamese media in February 2017, making the country secretly the world’s third biggest executioner over the past three years, according to Amnesty.

“The magnitude of executions in Vietnam in recent years is truly shocking. You have to wonder how many people have faced the death penalty without the world knowing it,” said Salil Shetty, secretary general of Amnesty International at the launch of the report in Hong Kong. “This conveyor belt of executions completely overshadows recent death penalty reforms.”

Nicholas Bequelin (left) and James Lynch (right) at Amnesty International's 2016 global death penalty report launch. Photo: Asia Times
Nicholas Bequelin (left) and James Lynch at Amnesty International’s 2016 global death penalty report launch. Photo: Asia Times

While unable to arrive at a conclusive figure for China, the report exposes hundreds of death penalty cases missing from its national online court database. Amnesty counted at least 931 reports of executions in China’s public news media from 2014 to 2016. However, only 85 of them were recorded in the state database.

“How many people are executed in China every year and how they are executed remains completely unknown,” said Nicholas Bequelin, regional director for East Asia at Amnesty International. “This really stands in contrast with what the government is claiming in recent years.” The online database is touted as the government’s “crucial step toward openness” and evidence that the country’s judicial system has nothing to hide.

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Breakdown of executions, excluding China. Source: Amnesty International
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Breakdown of death sentences issued, excluding China. Source: Amnesty International

The database contains only “a tip of an iceberg” in relation to the thousands of death sentences that Amnesty International estimates are handed out every year in China, Bequelin said. The organization is “calling on the Chinese government to come clean, and disclose the actual level of capital punishment,” he added.

The total number of death sentences reported in 2016 (as opposed to executions carried out) jumped to 3,117 in 55 countries, exceeding the record-high total of 2,466 in 2014. The increase was mainly led by spikes in 12 countries, including Bangladesh, Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The organization’s improved ability to obtain credible data on countries such as Thailand is cited as having contributed to the higher overall figure.

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