The Death Penalty in China - Part 1

(Baltimore Sun)  Doomed, then living to tell tale.  By Gady A. Epstein.  November 28, 2004.

The first time Jin Aiguo decided to confess to trafficking in heroin, he said, his police interrogators were being quite persuasive.

They had cuffed his hands together in an awkward position - one behind his back, the other stretched back over his shoulder - then threaded a wooden rod under his arms and lifted him off the ground until he agreed to sign the statement they had written for him.

"I would say, 'I will sign! I will sign!' But after they let me down, I would try to persuade them I did nothing wrong," said Jin, a 32-year-old taxi driver. "And then they would use the next torture."

On that day in August 2001, the police might not have known that they would have to inflict so much pain for so many hours to persuade Jin to sign, but they knew it would be worth the effort. If this taxi driver with no criminal history confessed, the interrogators would share in a bonus of at least $8,800 for helping the department meet a provincial quota for drug arrests.

The man would be executed, but that was of no concern.

Possibly as many as 10,000 people are executed in China every year, far more than in the rest of the world combined. The exact figure is a well-guarded state secret. Trafficking in drugs is just one of many crimes routinely punished here by a gunshot to the head or lethal injection.

But Jin's case turned out not to be routine: Not only was he innocent, but he also lived to tell his story. So did another taxi driver, Yang Shuxi, who was also arrested in this impoverished northwestern city in 2001. Each man was set up by the police and sentenced to death; each, in an almost miraculous turn of events, was exonerated and freed last year.

During their time inside the system - 17 months for Jin, 22 months for Yang - they became familiar with the harrowing, mundane order of life on death row, where inmates learn to recognize the haunting sound of the condemned shuffling forward in their leg irons to meet their fate.

Their stories offer a rare glimpse into what it is like to face the worst elements of the Chinese justice system and survive: corrupt police, beatings and torture, the denial of counsel for months, court hearings with predetermined outcomes and the almost expected death penalty.

That it was these two taxi drivers who were placed on death row was an accident of fate. But the nature of police work in China, especially in this impoverished desert province, Gansu, almost ensures that if it had not been Jin and Yang, it would have been two other innocent men.

Situated in the remote northwest, Gansu is almost an afterthought, one of China's poorest and least developed provinces, left far behind by the economic boom reshaping the coastal provinces to the east.

The most profitable indigenous business is heroin, for the poppy-growers, the refiners, the traders dealing from Central and South Asia to points east, and for the police who take payoffs to protect those people and earn bonuses for arresting them.

In the summer of 2001, south of Lanzhou, the Lintao County deputy police chief and his drug squad chief were far short of making their drug-arrest quotas, and their drug squad was among the worst-performing in the area. The chief of the prefecture-wide drug squad was also in danger of missing government quotas for arrests. So, too, was the deputy chief for the city of Lanzhou's Xigu District.

With the pressure of high-profile government anti-drug campaigns, and with the reward of at least $2.40 per gram of confiscated heroin, the temptation to cheat, and cheat big, was great.

No model citizen

That summer, according to state media reports, all of those officers, and others, turned to Ma Jinxiao for help.

Itinerant and illiterate, the Ma portrayed in Chinese newspaper reports was not a model citizen. But he was a longtime police informant and friend to many officers in the region. At that point, his chief value to senior officers was that he was a willing and unscrupulous accomplice.

The money helped explain his willingness. From July 21 to Sept. 18, 2001, Ma set up four people on drug-trafficking charges and was paid $31,000 by the police for doing so, according to his confession, which was read aloud in court and described in the Lanzhou Morning News.

With one exception, Ma picked his dupes randomly. The exception, according to a detailed report this month in the Guangzhou-based newspaper Southern Weekend, was a prostitute who had angered one of Ma's friends in the Gansu province police by reporting his solicitation of prostitutes to supervisors, almost getting the friend fired.

Ma was seeking to curry favor that summer with police in Xigu District, where his son had been arrested for stealing a bicycle, and the district deputy chief was complaining to Ma about needing to meet arrest quotas. So Ma shot two eagles with one arrow, as the saying here goes.

Ma gave the prostitute, surnamed Peng, two kilograms of heroin to transport, telling her it would earn her $1,200, according to state media reports. She was picked up on a well-traveled drug highway near Lanzhou on July 21, 2001, by the officer Ma wanted to please, Deputy Chief Zhao Mingrui, and fellow policeman Ni Xinggang.

Peng received a suspended death sentence for trafficking heroin and languished in prison for three years and 12 days before being released, more than 2 1/2 years after Ma confessed to setting her up. The officers were sentenced to prison terms shorter than the time Peng served. After the arrests, they received generous cash bonuses, possibly thousands of dollars each. Ma earned $5,600, according to his confession.

Ma quickly moved on to helping other senior officers meet their quotas, only now with random targets. Standing at a Lanzhou bus station on the afternoon of July 26, Ma climbed into a Volkswagen Santana cab and brought driver Yang Shuxi's comfortable life to a crashing halt.

Yang, a 47-year-old father of four, was a young farmer of potato and wheat on the outskirts of Lanzhou who had seized a series of small opportunities opened up by China's economic reforms in the late 1970s. His last big move was buying the Santana, and for the six months he drove it before picking up his last passenger, he was earning great money, about $1,500 a month.

Following the cracked, winding two-lane road from the modern city center to his nearby township of Agan is a metaphor for rapid descent. Crumbling brick buildings, hollowed-out factories and a filthy, garbage-strewn tributary of the Yellow River snake along the road under a silt sky. Chain-smoking inside his dimly lighted red-brick home, Yang talked about that day when he picked up his last passenger.

Ma had asked Yang to park in a storage lot of a lumber company, where a man on a motorcycle rode up and gave Ma a red nylon bag. Ma insisted on putting the bag in the trunk, then removed a copy of Yang's identification from his glove compartment.

"I asked him why he did that, then he took a pistol from his pants pocket and pointed it at me," Yang said. Ma demanded that Yang take the bag to the Binghe hotel in Lanzhou, for which he would be paid about $1,800. "If you cannot accomplish this," Ma told him, "your life and the lives of your family members will be in my hands."

Yang started driving back to the city, determined, he said, to turn the bag in to the police. But after about two miles, he was stopped by a police roadblock manned by more than 10 officers, all armed. Several pulled him from his car and began kicking and punching him, he said, the kind of gratuitous physical abuse that human rights experts say is not unusual upon arrest in China.

"I cried out, 'What law of the country have I broken?'" he said. Then they put his shirt over his head, cuffed his hands behind his back and beat him to the ground. He cried out again and again, "What law of the country have I broken?"

'I am the weak one'

The officer overseeing the arrest was Ding Yongnian, chief of the prefecture's drug squad. With the red bag in the trunk, containing what police said was 3.3 kilograms of heroin, the arrest of Yang would be worth as much as $7,900 in bonuses for Ding and his officers.

The officers took Yang to a local police station, cuffed his hands behind his back to a bed frame and interrogated him as he stood there, while Yang protested his innocence. Then he was transferred to the prefecture's drug-confiscation squad office, where his hands were cuffed in front of him to an upper bed bunk railing for the night, making him stand there so that he could not sleep.

The next morning, officers questioned Yang again, this time allowing him to sit. He had not had anything to eat or drink since his arrest, but they gave him nothing as he continued maintaining his innocence.

"I also told them, 'You are the strong ones and I am the weak one. You are the agency with power, and I am the common person,'" Yang said.

That night, he was transferred to a crowded cell in the county detention center, where he would remain for almost two years. There was one long wooden platform for the 11 inmates, with no room for him to lie down and sleep. The next afternoon, his third day in custody, he ate his first meal since his arrest, a watery bowl of noodles.

Less than two weeks later, Jin Aiguo, too, had the misfortune of picking up Ma and taking him to the same lumber storage yard. There, after Ma had asked him to wait a while for a friend, Jin left the cab to go to the bathroom. When he returned, Ma told him that he could just drive off. Less than a mile down the road, Jin said, he was arrested by plainclothes officers led by Zhang Wenzhuo and Bian Weihong.

Officers took his cab away and returned 15 minutes later, saying they had found a blue canvas bag of heroin hidden behind the back seat. Jin figured it had been placed there by Ma or the police. Zhang, Bian and the other officers, in line for a bonus of as much as $7,500, saw things differently and were determined to extract a confession.

Human rights activists, scholars and diplomats say the Chinese police are well trained in torture - despite official protestations to the contrary - and the treatment Jin describes seems to bear that out.

For 15 or 16 hours, from about 1 p.m. Aug. 11 until the predawn hours of Aug. 12, Jin was tortured in several ways, each crude but imaginative, excruciating and effective.

The first method was to lift Jin with the wooden rod under his uncomfortably cuffed arms. The next technique was to shackle his feet, tie his left arm behind him with a length of rope, then lift the rope so that his arm would be twisted painfully.

After that, Jin said, they would force him to sit down with his legs crossed, his feet shackled and his upper body bent forward to the concrete floor. An officer would sit down on him, putting his full body weight on Jin's legs, then grab Jin's ears for leverage as he pulled himself up and down, causing the cabdriver to scream.

Recalling the scene recently in a Lanzhou coffee shop, Jin laughed nervously as he demonstrated how his head was pulled up and down by the ears to increase his suffering.

"Of course, I cried out. I shouted, 'Save my life!'" Jin said. "It was summer, and it was very hot, and one of the police officers took off one of his smelly socks and put it in my mouth."

Finally, Jin said, he agreed to sign and affix his fingerprint to the four-page confession the police had written for him. Just before he did, he said, "I defended myself for the last time. I said, 'I did not do this. You should conduct an investigation and check the fingerprints on the bag.'"

In response, an officer kicked him to the ground, and Jin signed without reading.

"At the time, I didn't care about reading through the document. They were torturing me. I could not think of anything more," he said. "I was scared to death."

Waiting to die

Jin was immediately transferred to the Lintao County detention center, where he slept at first on a concrete floor in a cell that contained 12 to 18 people. During his 17 months in the cell, his fellow prisoners, like Yang's, included murderers, rapists and robbers.

From that point on, Yang and Jin, though in different detention centers, led similarly bleak existences while waiting to die. Each received two 10- to 15-minute breaks a day, one in the morning and the other in the late afternoon, to leave the cell and walk around or use the bathroom.

They were fed two starchy meals a day. The first meal consisted of boiled potatoes and steamed buns. The second meal was the same for Jin. Yang got a small bowl of noodles. Their drinking water was an unclean, milky white, and they suffered intestinal problems, rashes and other ailments in their crowded cells.

In the winters, the barred, open-air windows exposed their unheated cells to the elements. There was little to distract the prisoners from the numbing routine, except for the days when the guards came for those sentenced to die, usually before major national holidays, when a group of prisoners would be trucked to a remote location and shot.

The authorities never came to Jin's cell while he was there, he said, but he knew when people were being taken away from other cells at his prison.

"The cells are usually very quiet. You can hear when people are walking or when the wind blows," Jin said. "The condemned prisoners all wear shackles on their feet, and when they walk you can hear the loud clang-clang sound."

Yang and Jin were not shackled at the feet at first, because they had to be put through the motions of the justice system. Their fate, though, was almost predetermined.

Grim statistics

Not many people enter the Chinese criminal justice system and escape it with a not-guilty ruling. About one-half of 1 percent of defendants receive not-guilty verdicts before appeal, according to official statistics, and the government does not provide figures on the success rates of appeals.

Fewer still are sentenced to death and then exonerated and allowed to live free again. The parallel journeys of Yang and Jin through the justice system help explain why.

First, their attorneys, hired for them by their families, could not see them for months, until a few weeks before their days in court, and then only once and briefly.

Such obstruction by police, prosecutors and court officials is common. They consider defense attorneys "detrimental" to conviction, in the words of a scathing Amnesty International report issued this year on China's use of the death penalty.

Staging a defense in such cases can be extremely difficult anyway. Chinese law allows prosecutors to charge defense attorneys with faking evidence for their clients, which tips the scales of justice and weighs heavily on the minds of lawyers.

In these two cases, as in many others in China, the lawyers proved irrelevant. The court hearings for Yang and Jin, their only chance to protest that they had been set up, lasted 40 minutes each. A committee made up of Communist Party members had decided the defendants' fates well before they stepped into the courtroom.

Such committees meet behind closed doors to decide the outcomes of difficult or major cases, including death penalty cases, before they are heard in open court, even though the accused and their attorneys have yet to present their defenses. Chinese law does not explicitly guarantee criminal defendants the presumption of innocence, and in the many cases deemed important enough to be handled by these party-led committees, defendants also get no chance to assert their innocence at a meaningful trial.

The two taxi drivers did not know this, and they made impassioned declarations of innocence in court. It was difficult to remember what to say, they recalled, because in the courtroom, each saw his family for the first time since his arrest.

"I saw my wife, and she started to cry. I started to cry as well, and I forgot everything," Yang said of his appearance in court Jan. 6, 2002, more than six months after his arrest.

He was convicted and, at a hearing three weeks later, sentenced to death.

Jin, at his hearing before he was sentenced, turned to look at his family, feeling "heartbroken."

After they were sentenced, both were fitted with the leg irons of the condemned.

During that time, Yang's wife was spending the family into debt trying to buy Yang's freedom. Some criminals are able to bribe their way out of prison, even out of death sentences, but despite giving more than $12,000 to people with "connections," Yang's wife was not able to get her innocent husband off death row.

But, by a stroke of luck, the events that led to the freeing of Yang and Jin were in motion, though they did not know it.

In September 2001, Ma had helped Lanzhou police make one of their biggest busts in years, involving another cabdriver, this time with 10 kilograms of heroin in his car. After earning a total of nearly $12,000 for setting up Yang and Jin, he got nearly $17,000 from police for this arrest, according to his confession.

The catch was that the bust was too big, and it attracted attention from higher-level authorities, who determined that the case was fixed. The Lanzhou police, according to state media reports, tracked down Ma, who soon confessed to cooperating with police to set up Jin.

When provincial police ordered a test of Jin's bag of 3.7 kilograms of white powder and found minute traces of heroin, they ordered a review of all drug busts in 2001, according to Southern Weekend. Within a short time, Ma confessed to setting up Yang and the prostitute, Peng. The set-ups were unraveling.

Yet except for the driver caught in the last, biggest bust, who was released less than two weeks after being picked up, the unraveling was inexplicably slow, perhaps because the influential officers involved fought to preserve their busts. Yang and Jin remained confined, their leg shackles still on, waiting to be informed of their date of execution.

Their good fortune was that their deaths were likely to be postponed until late June 2002 because the government observes the United Nations' international anti-drug day on June 26 by executing drug traffickers en masse. When the time came, they had heard, they might expect to be led off in the back of a truck to a site in the countryside, then shot in the back of the head at close range.

Instead, within several months the leg shackles came off when the Gansu Provincial High Court, presumably apprised of Ma's confession to the two men's set-ups, ordered that their cases be reviewed because of an apparent lack of evidence.

Lost freedom

Appellate courts in China rarely do more than call for a review or retrial, in part to avoid embarrassing lower-level judges, according to legal experts and Amnesty International's report. Though the high court had effectively spared the lives of Yang and Jin, China's timid appellate tradition cost them - and the prostitute Peng - months of freedom.

Jin got his high court reprieve in March 2002, but he was not released until the next January. Yang's ruling was made in April 2002, but he remained in prison for more than year, until May last year. Peng, the first to be arrested, was the last to be released, in August this year.

The officers who sent them to prison were at first commended, then prosecuted as the cases fell apart. Bian Weihong, who helped arrange Jin's arrest, was awarded the Excellent People's Policeman Award at the end of 2001, and his drug squad, which had been rated so poorly six months earlier, won a commendation and a bonus of nearly $9,000.

Bian, a previous winner of numerous national drug-fighting awards, is missing after being sentenced to three years in prison, according to state media.

His accomplice, Zhang Wenzhuo, also honored and compensated for helping meet the arrest quotas, has received the harshest sentence of any of the officers - 10 years in prison for abuse of power and twisting the law for personal gain, according to state media.

Ding Yongnian, who set up Yang, was given a six-year prison term that was reduced to three on appeal, according to state media. A previous winner of several national drug-fighting awards and of Excellent People's Policeman honors, Ding blamed the drug-crime quotas for contributing to his downfall. "The responsibility should be taken not only by myself, but by everyone," he said in court, according to the Lanzhou Morning News.

The officers who arranged the biggest Lanzhou bust, the one that attracted officials' attention, appear not to have been punished.

Abuses revealed

Police officials in the jurisdictions declined requests for interviews. Their wariness is understandable, for the case has become a minor media scandal in recent months, enabling Chinese journalists, unable to report broadly on police misconduct because of official media controls, to expose the police's abuse of power and the dangers of the quota system.

Generally uninformed by the state-controlled news media about the pervasiveness of such problems, even some of the victims of this system say that it works well. Yang and Jin view their cases as rare exceptions resulting from the actions of a few rogue officers. They want more compensation - Yang was paid about $4,500 and Jin $3,000 - but they express no ill will toward the system that nearly took their lives.

"Before, I had no contact with the police or the courts, but through this case, I still feel that rule of law in China is progressing," Jin said. "If all of the people involved were muddle-headed, right now I would be a part of the yellow earth."

Communist Party leaders view their harsh justice system as a necessary means of social control, but in their campaign to promote the rule of law, they are contemplating an important step forward. The Supreme People's Court might soon begin reviewing all death penalty cases, a job it currently leaves almost entirely to the provincial high courts.

For reasons bureaucratic, legal and political, top-level review of all capital cases would almost certainly result in a reduction in executions. Quotas and bonuses that probably increase the numbers on death row will continue, however, because poor provinces such as Gansu use them to supplement the incomes of poorly paid officers, and the central government views them as an effective crime-fighting incentive.

Cases closed

In February, the Ministry of Public Security, concerned that many murder cases were going unsolved, launched a national campaign urging jurisdictions to solve all their murder cases, setting aside $360,000 for cash bonuses for police departments.

The departments responded. Through the first seven months of this year, 1,273 cities, counties and districts reported that they had solved every murder case, and the national rate for solving murder cases was a remarkable 81.1 percent.

The ministry, pleased with the early results, recently announced that the campaign will run at least three years.