Portraits of the last day on Death Row

Haunting images from Chinese prison add to pressure for an end to systematic executions

Asian governments will face renewed calls to abolish the death penalty after figures revealed that 14 countries in the region execute more people than the rest of the world put together. China, for example, is believed to execute thousands of convicts every year.

Amnesty International and the Anti-Death Penalty Asia Network will tomorrow call on the countries to halt executions. They will also claim that suspects struggle to obtain fair trials in many Asian nations, including China, India, Indonesia, Japan and Malaysia.

"The minority of states that continue to systematically use the death penalty were responsible for thousands of executions in 2010, defying the global anti-death penalty trend," said Amnesty's secretary general, Salil Shetty, earlier this year. "While executions may be on the decline, a number of countries continue to pass death sentences for drug-related offences, economic crimes, sexual relations between consenting adults and blasphemy, [thereby] violating international human rights law forbidding the use of the death penalty except for the most serious crimes."

The activists' demands coincide with the publication of previously unseen photographs taken inside a Chinese women's prison, documenting the hours before prisoners on death row were led away for execution.

The photographer, whose presence at Detention Centre No 1 in Wuhan, central China, in June 2003 was sanctioned by prison officials, took pictures of four women eating, playing cards and relaxing on the night before their sentences were carried out. He spent 12 hours with guards and the four inmates, who were to be executed for trafficking drugs.

In the images, which were considered too sensitive for publication at the time, the women are seen laughing, putting on make-up and being fed by warders. One woman, Li Juhua, has her nails painted while still shackled. Another convict, Dai Donggui, is seen eating a bowl of green bean soup and preparing to don the new red outfit she requested for her execution. A third woman, 25-year-old He Xiuling, also changes her clothes, apparently believing that the white shirt she was wearing before made her look fat.

The next pictures, taken a few hours later, show He in tears, at the head of a line of condemned convicts, both male and female, being marched to the execution ground. According to Chinese practice, all were to be shot in the back of the head.

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