Amnesty International has sharply criticised China for continuing to conceal the number of people it sentences to death, as the human rights group reported a fall in executions globally last year.
The number of executions around the world fell by more than a third to 1,032 across 23 countries in 2016, compared with 1,634 in 25 countries in 2015. Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Pakistan were the top executioners.
It is estimated that China executes thousands of people, but Beijing does not release statistics and considers the number of death sentences to be a state secret.
Nicholas Bequelin, Amnesty’s east Asia director, said: “It is time for China to stop being a rogue state in the international community with respect to the death penalty and finally allow the Chinese people to have a proper, informed debate about capital punishment in the country.”
China has a conviction rate of about 99.9% and criminal trials heavily rely on confessions. Rights activists say suspects are often tortured or coerced into admitting guilt.
The Chinese government claims it has reduced the use of the death penalty and taken steps under a policy of “killing fewer, killing cautiously”. As part of this, the county’s top court must now approve death sentences handed out by lower courts.
But without concrete statistics, activists say there is no way to verify government claims. “There is absolutely no way to tell if death sentences are going up or down in China,” Bequelin said. “Members of the international community have become very complacent on taking China’s word at face value.”
For years, China has rebuffed requests by the United Nations for more data on executions and ignored UN resolutions to increase transparency.
In one high-profile case that highlighted the problematic use of the death penalty, last year a man was exonerated 21 years after he was executed by firing squad for murder.
China’s court system has a database of sentences, but it is largely incomplete, Amnesty found. Hundreds of death penalty cases were missing from the official judicial database, including all instances of foreigners sentenced to die over drug-related offences.
“China doesn’t want to be embarrassed and they don’t want the extra scrutiny,” said William Nee, a China researcher at Amnesty. “We’re talking about thousands of lives – not only wrongful executions but also cases where people are perhaps guilty but there are mitigating circumstances or issues of fair legal representation.”
The two largest offences that were omitted from the government database were drug charges and so-called terrorism cases. There are 46 crimes punishable by death in China, including drug offences, arson and embezzlement.
Amnesty singled out China’s use of the death penalty in terrorism cases, mainly centred on the north-west Xinjiang region, home to the Turkic Muslim Uighur ethnic group.
Authorities launched a “strike hard” campaign after a series of attacks, which included death sentences being handed out in public trials held in sports stadiums. “Whenever we’ve seen a strike hard campaign, we’ve traditionally seen increases in death sentences,” said Nee.
Uighurs accounted for about 4% of death sentences, despite accounting for only 0.7% of China’s total population, according to a partial analysis of capital punishment data.
A year after its founding in 1921, China’s Communist party said it wanted to “abolish the death penalty, abolish corporal punishment”. But by the time the Communists took power in 1949, the death penalty was frequently used against party enemies, and in less the three years 712,000 people were executed, according to official figures, during the “Campaign to Suppress Counter-revolutionaries”.
Behind China, Iran executed at least 567 people in 2016, mostly for drug crimes, the Amnesty report said, followed by Saudi Arabia with at least 154 executions and Iraq with 88.
The United States carried out 20 death sentences last year, the lowest number since 1991, and the number of people sentenced to die dropped to the lowest since 1973.