China is the world’s biggest user of the death penalty, killing more prisoners than the rest of the world combined, according to human rights groups.
The last high-profile executions followed the conviction of milk producers responsible for contaminating milk with an industrial chemical – an affair that intoxicated 30,000 children.
Causing death or injury is among 68 crimes punishable by death in China’s penal code. These include non-violent crimes such as counterfeiting, tax fraud and gold smuggling although the majority of executions are for murder and drug trafficking.
However, human rights groups like Amnesty International say China also uses capital punishment as a means of applying political pressure.
It cites the use of the death penalty for those found guilty of rioting during July’s clashes between the Han majority and ethnic Uighurs following a police crackdown. Five people have been sentenced to death in connection with the deadly violence.
Amnesty says some 7,000 people were sentenced to death this year with more than 1,700 executions carried out. But other activists, such as US-based rights group, Dui Hua, claim that figure is just the tip of the iceberg and that some 5,000 people have been executed this year. It is, nevertheless, a figure dramatically down from last year when some human rights groups estimate around 10,000 executions were carried out.
Generally, a bullet is fired into the back of the head. However, since 1997, China has also been using lethal injection as what it calls a “more humane” method of execution.
Two years ago, China’s Supreme Court took over the power to issue the death penalty from provincial high courts in a bid to exercise more control over execution rates. But, in the lead-up to last year’s Olympic Games, Beijing increased its repressive measures.
It has shown no sign since of bowing to international pressure, having recently voted against a UN resolution calling for a worldwide moratorium on the death penalty.