Shackles, convulsions and sheer terror: life on death row in China

Clifford Coonan
Monday 28 December 2009 01:00
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A prisoner is escorted for execution at a public rally in Zhanjiang in China’s Guangdong province
A prisoner is escorted for execution at a public rally in Zhanjiang in China’s Guangdong province

However limited Akmal Shaikh's mental capacities, the 4kg of heroin that he brought into Urumqi Airport in 2007 means that he faces a truly terrible fate.

In China, he is far from alone. Some 68 crimes carry the death penalty, including corruption and tax fraud as well as murder; more people are executed by the state here than in any other country. While some Chinese provinces have switched to the lethal injection as a means of execution, Xinjiang province has not and Mr Shaikh will be executed by a bullet to the back of the neck.

The blog testimony of one worker closely involved in the execution process gives a grisly insight into exactly how executions happen in China. It's a nightmare world he describes, in which a disconsolate, condemned man sitting in handcuffs, with fetters on his feet, discusses funeral arrangements with his relatives, before the police take him off to the place of execution.

"Arriving at the execution ground, the majority of death-row inmates can't stand, and have incontinence," the witness writes. "Legal police force lift them from the truck down to the ground. Then they are dragged to the execution location. Armed police jump from the truck. One armed police officer puts the gun three inches away from the back of his head.

"When the execution officer gives the order, the soldier pulled the trigger. After the gunshot, the condemned man fell forward, and a pool of blood splashed out."

The blog posting goes on: "If the condemned has convulsions, another soldier shoots again into the back of the brain. The coroner turned the body around. The condemned man's forehead was shattered, and anyone watching it would definitely vomit. The coroner, the courts, the prosecutors, anyone involved would definitely have vomited. After death is confirmed, the two sides sign a death certificate, the police take off the handcuffs and the shackles."

Despite those horrors, the death penalty is popular in China, where it is viewed as a successful deterrent to serious crime. But the Chinese people are gradually becoming more sceptical, and many new judicial rules are aimed at stopping the police extracting confessions by torture. The Chinese media reports that the Supreme People's Court overturned 15 per cent of death sentences handed down in 2007 and 10 per cent in 2008. But even if things are changing in China, it will matter little to Akmal Shaikh.

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