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China speeds up justice and doubles execution rate

China's anti-crime crackdown has led to a doubling in the number of reported executions. Punishment has in some cases been meted out so swiftly that defendants were shot within days of being arrested, and the type of crimes which have warranted the death penalty included VAT receipt theft, stealing a large haul of ballpoint pens and badminton raquets, and cattle rustling.

The figures for 1996 have been compiled by Amnesty International, which every year collates reports of death sentences and confirmed executions in the Chinese newspapers and other public sources. This represents only a proportion of the actual executions - the real figure being a state secret - but gives a reliable guide to trends in the Chinese judicial system.

For 1996, the human rights group recorded more than 6,100 death sentences and 4,367 confirmed executions. This compares with 3,110 and 2,190 respectively for 1995. Last year's gruesome tally produced the highest figures recorded by Amnesty's research, which has been published since the early 1980s. The only comparable year was 1983 when an earlier anti-crime campaign similarly led to a wave of mass executions.

The sharp rise last year was clearly due to the "Yanda" (Strike Hard) campaign launched against China's rising crime rate in April 1996. By May hardly a week was going by without reports of mass public sentencing rallies and mass executions somewhere in China. According to newspaper stories at the time about specific cities, Chinese courts seemed to be processing cases at such a speed that any possibility of a meaningful or fair trial had been abandoned. Last year the Chinese government was boasting to the international human rights community about improved safeguards for defendants in its judicial procedures.

According to Amnesty, the numbers of crimes which are punishable by death in China has spiralled over the last 10 years, particularly for non-violent crimes such as embezzlement, fraud and theft. On 25 June last year in Shanghai, Hou Zhijiang and Wei Xuemeng were executed for stealing ballpoint pens and badminton raquets valued at pounds 4,400.

The next day, Chen Zhong and two other men were executed in Sichuan for attempting to steal value added tax receipts from a tax office. Zhang Xizhong was executed in Sichuan on 13 May for stealing 14 cattle.

The speed at which trials and executions have been carried out have been taking place in a judicial system which Amnesty describes as having an "alarming potential for miscarriages of justice". In Jilin province, three people were arrested for stealing from a car on 21 May, sentenced to death on 27 May, and executed on 31 May. There is no meaningful appeals process.

The bulge in reported executions and death sentences lasted from May to September last year, according to Amnesty's figures. This included the anti-drugs crackdown in the run-up to Anti-Drugs day on 26 June, with 447 confirmed executions in 1996 for drug trafficking or possession.

While foreigners are kept away from execution grounds, most Chinese people see executions as an accepted part of crime control. The "Strike Hard" campaign was widely welcomed - though it failed to solve the worsening crime situation.