Stewed pig's feet, a case of Coke and a lethal jab

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If you faced your last meal on Earth, would your appetite desert you or would you attack it with gusto?

If you faced your last meal on Earth, would your appetite desert you or would you attack it with gusto?

When a Chinese website took a rare peek over prison walls at the world's busiest Death Row, the last supper was predictably a key feature.

Seventeen condemned men in south-west China's Chongqing city showed little hesitation - devouring an eight-dish banquet including stewed pigs' feet and pickled tongue, washed down with a case of Coca-Cola. A parting shot of the real thing is not the only way the Chinese are copying the Americans.

China has revealed that state executioners, who enforce more death sentences than the rest of the world combined, will turn increasingly to lethal injection as the weapon of choice. The US is the only other country known to use lethal injections.

Most of the 1,000-plus people executed in China last year were killed by a bullet to the heart or back of the head. Chinese legal experts claim the new method is cheaper and more humane. Human rights groups worry the move from external execution grounds to injections within prison compounds will make the death penalty harder to monitor and may help the covert trade in the organs ofexecuted prisoners.

Medical research on the lethal dose is almost complete. Chinese scientists have conducted more than 1,000 experiments on animals to perfect the drug, while executioners practised by injecting rabbits. The number of human guinea pigs is also rising, most recently in June when eight people in Chengdu, Sichuan province, were killed by lethal injection.

State media said the two-stage injection, administered in the "peaceful setting" of an isolated room, comprised anaesthetic followed by a deadly dose to stop the heart. Death by lethal injection is "more humane and less painful" than a gunshot, said a Peking University law professor, Liang Genlin. It is also cheaper, as police can dispense with the logistics of organising a firing squad and security.

The greater convenience worries some groups. "At the moment China treats death penalty statistics as state secrets," said Catherine Baber, an Amnesty International researcher in Hong Kong. "If China moves to lethal injections, taking place within prison, it will be even harder to monitor."

Amnesty also fears that lethal injections will increase trafficking in body parts harvested from executed prisoners, a trade "which continues despite numerous official denials", according to Ms Baber. Amnesty has received reports from doctors attesting that organs removed after lethal injections could still be used for transplant operations.

"Above all, the move towards lethal injections does not reduce our concerns about the extensive use of the death penalty in China, and the lack of proper protections and fair trial procedures," Ms Baber said.

Professor Genlin said: "China still has a severe crime problem so we need something like the death penalty to scare people off crime. Developed and civilised countries such as US and Japan still have the death penalty, which shows that it is necessary."

While their American colleagues remain silent, European Union officials regularly raise their objections to the death penalty during formal human rights discussions with China. A European diplomat in Peking said: "With a country like China there is no point in asking for abolition overnight. We must be realistic, and look to reducing the scope of the death penalty and increasing the safeguards."

Britain is taking a leading role in the fight. From 19 to 21 September, the Foreign Secretary's Death Penalty Panel, comprising academics and legal experts, will visit China to explain London's pro-abolition stance.

During a crackdown on illegal drugs in late June, 72 people in China were executed in one week alone. These included the 17 documented by last week.

Once the kneeling prisoner is shot, the bill for the bullet is allegedly sent to the family. In the case of Zheng Jiarong, the ringleader of a family of drug-runners, hardly any close relative remained at liberty to pay.

At 4pm on 25 June, a Chongqing court upheld the death sentences of Zheng, her son, a cousin and a nephew. The only relief came when her daughter and son-in-law received suspended sentences.

Zheng and fellow prisoners were returned to their bare cells shackled by hand and leg cuffs. She shared her cell with three other prisoners, to help her through the final hours and ensure she did not rob the state of its final privilege.

After the last supper at 5.30pm, some prisoners played cards to pass the time, others swapped stories of their capture. The atmosphere was tense in the cell where Zheng's son and nephew were incarcerated. Two years ago, the son had turned the nephew into the police but it did not save him too from a death sentence.

At 9pm, Zheng tidied her few possessions and stared at photographs of her family, the closest she had come to seeing them during 18 months in jail. Police brought pens and paper for wills and letters. "I want to wash your clothes again, let you sit on my lap and hear you call me Mama," Zheng wrote tearfully to her daughter.

At 2am, a letter arrived for Zheng's nephew from his 14-year-old son. Jiang Yakun broke down as he read his son's pleas for him to confess clearly and come home soon. The boy was still unaware his father would never return. At 5am, Zheng said to her cellmates with a bitter laugh: "This is the last time I put on make-up. I want to look tidy as I set [out] on the road but there's no coming back on this road!"

At 7am armed police took the prisoners to the ritual public gathering - where government officials announce the crimes of convicts on display and warn the populace not to follow their example. At 10am, they left for the execution ground.