China’s initiation of market reforms is joined by gradual revival of drug trade
Death penalty sentences included for those found guilty of accepting bribes

"Even the devastation caused by the earthquake couldn’t make them postpone the execution by a single day," said Xu Youping, a colleague of Zhou Jianzhong from the same law firm. "Rescue efforts were the number one priority, executions (for corruption) were the second".

By Antoaneta Bezlova
Inter Press Service

CHENGDU — China’s intensified "people’s war on drugs" is undermining efforts to reform the use of the death penalty.

As host to the 2008 summer Olympic games, Beijing has pledged to use the ultimate punishment sparingly and cautiously, sending all death sentences handed down by the provinces for review by the country’s Supreme Court.

But, on the other hand, a drive to create a "drug-free" Beijing Olympics in August has allowed little respite in the use of China’s maximum penalty, and scores of drug dealers have been sentenced and executed.

"We don’t feel there has been any decline in the numbers of people tried and sentenced to death," says Zhou Jianzhong, a criminal defence lawyer based in this southwestern city, who has handled close to a hundred death penalty cases in the last several years.

"The majority of my clients are drug traffickers. They deal in new, non-traditional drugs that are manufactured locally and easy to pass. The number of dealers is growing and the cases of death penalties are growing too,’’ the lawyer told IPS.

Last month China executed three convicted drug dealers and sentenced dozens more to death or life in prison in a crackdown ahead of the United Nations anti-drug day on Jun. 26. The government announced a new pre-Olympics round of what it calls a protracted "people’s war on drugs". Sentencing rallies were held across the country and hundreds of cases of drug trafficking handed harsh judgments.

"After three years of our people’s war on drugs, we have effectively contained drug sources and the widespread expansion of dangerous drug products and drug addicts," Yang Fengrui, head of drugs control in the public security ministry said at a press conference in late June.

"But although our fight against drugs has clearly turned in our favour, it remains a difficult struggle," he said.

After the Communist victory in 1949, all vices like drug addiction and prostitution -- perceived as capitalist ills -- were almost entirely wiped out. Drug offenders were executed while addicts were locked up for cures in specialised clinics. But after the initiation of market reforms in early 1980s, drug trade and drug abuses have seen a gradual revival.

Yang estimated there could be 2.3 million drug abusers in the country. While the number of known Chinese drug addicts is one million, officials have determined that in some high-risk cities the ratio between known and unidentified addicts is about 1:1.3. This means China can potentially have another 1.3 million drug abusers left unidentified.

Chengdu has long been one of the main battlegrounds in China’s war on illicit drugs. The capital of Sichuan province lies on the crossing of drugs trafficking routes coming into China from the heroin-producing "Golden Triangle" of Thailand, Burma and Laos in the south and the "Golden Crescent" of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran in the west.

In recent years China has succeeded in arresting the flow of opium from Burma and Laos by investing about 700 million yuan (100 million US dollars) in substitution programs luring local farmers away from opium growing. But that victory has been invalidated by the rise of new drugs like ‘ice’ and ketamine, which are produced in China.

In March, about 200 kilograms of ketamine were found in an underground workshop in Chengdu along with four guns. Under Chinese law, dealing in a minimum of 1kg of ketamine warrants the capital punishment.

The emergence of new drugs has been a real headache, according to Zhou and his colleagues from Sichuan Xinhuazhong Law firm -- one of the few in the province handling big criminal cases.

"When the first case of ketamine trafficking was tried in year 2000, there was no legal standard set yet and the harshest sentence handed down was life in prison," says Zhong.

But last year the new judicial interpretation and penalties for drugs such as ketamine and ice were introduced and the numbers of deaths sentences picked up. As a defence lawyer for convicted-to- death drug dealers, Zhou’s success rate is very low. "Only about ten percent," he admits.

In one of his most recent cases, a Chengdu drug dealer charged with dealing in 2.1 kg of heroine was sentenced to death because the judge felt the defendant was not showing any remorse. "The way the judge felt about Chen Zhishi not pleading or protesting during the trial influenced the sentence," Zhou asserts. "I tried to object but I was interrupted".

In 1996, China revised its criminal procedure code, incorporating the Western concepts of presumption of innocence and the right to an attorney for certain categories of cases. But the practice is often divorced from the law, lawyers say.

"Death sentences are often handed down in one and half month, the time normally spent on trying a robbery case," says Zhou. "The attorney has no time or ability to mount a proper defence. As lawyers we feel very awkward... we are blamed by people for the deaths of the defendants and often pursued to return our fees".

China has frequently come under fire by overseas human rights organisations for its broad use of the death penalty. More than 60 offences in the country, including corruption and embezzlement, are punishable by death. The government does not publish official statistics on executions but independent Chinese researchers believe the figure is up to 10,000 annually.

A day after a devastating earthquake struck Sichuan province in May, the authorities in the provincial capital of Chengdu put to death a city official, Zhu Fuzhong, convicted for seeking and receiving bribes.

"Even the devastation caused by the earthquake couldn’t make them postpone the execution by a single day," said Xu Youping, a colleague of Zhou Jianzhong from the same law firm. "Rescue efforts were the number one priority, executions (for corruption) were the second".

— July 16, 2008