HONG KONG—Three Chinese death-row inmates who say they were tortured into confessing to crimes they didn’t commit have staged a hunger strike to draw attention to their case, amid a new U.N. warning that the death penalty carries too high a cost to societies that use it.
The three men—Fang Chunping, Huang Zhiqiang, and Cheng Fagen—began to refuse food at the Jingdezhen municipal jail in the eastern province of Jiangxi on Tuesday in protest their convictions and sentences for murder along with one other man, Cheng Lihe, who didn’t join the hunger strike.
Beijing-based rights lawyer Teng Biao said he along with dozens of other lawyers had been involved in the case.
“All the lawyers involved in this case think that there is a very big problem with these convictions,” Teng said.
“These four men were forced to confess to crimes they hadn’t committed through the use of extremely cruel torture.”
Their protest came as the United Nations’ Fourth World Congress against the Death Penalty issued a statement warning against the use of the death penalty, and calling for its universal abolition.
“We reconfirm that the death penalty may in no circumstances be regarded as an appropriate response to the violence and tensions which permeate through our societies,” the conference said in its closing statement.
Governments should be aware of “the emotional burden they create, particularly in the context of terrorism,” said the statement, in a reference to political pressure to gain convictions in terrorism cases.
In China, which has recently executed nine people for their role in the ethnic unrest in the troubled Muslim region of Xinjiang in July, the relatives of one inmate, Fang Chunping, said they don’t believe Fang is guilty.
“Of course we don’t believe this,” Fang’s brother said.
“My brother and his wife were watching television at home at that time.”
“I remember it clearly, because a few days before they brought charges, the police came to our village and started arresting any young man they saw, and hauled them off for questioning at the village committee offices. I was taken in for questioning that day too,” he added.
According to lawyers and their relatives, all four men had good alibis for the crimes they were convicted of, and police had been unable to find matching DNA from the scene of the crime.
All four said their confessions were beaten out of them by police, who left them hanging from the ceiling in manacles for several days and nights and deprived them of sleep.
Beijing-based lawyer Teng said he had handled at least five cases personally in which defendants were executed on the basis of forced confessions under torture.
“From a legal point of view, such a miscarriage of justice is irreversible in the case of the death penalty,” he said. “It’s not acceptable to have even one of these cases miscarry.”
“The police are under great pressure to crack cases. When they are unable to find the real killer, they find someone else to use as a scapegoat instead,” he said, adding that China’s courts tend to follow the political lead of local Party law enforcement committees.
“The criminal justice system has a lot to do with the state of China’s human rights situation today, including the attitude of law enforcement professionals towards human rights,” he said.
Many more executions
Hong Kong-based Catholic priest and anti-death penalty campaigner Franco Mella said China’s use of the death penalty could impede judicial process.
“Other countries refuse to extradite people to China because it has the death penalty,” Mella said, citing the case of former Xiamen businessmen Lai Changxing, who was eventually extradited back to the China to stand trial for large-scale corruption and smuggling activities.
“So in this way, the death penalty actually interfered with judicial processes.”
Officials who answered the phone at China’s Supreme Court and the Ministry of Public Security in Beijing declined to comment on the death penalty.
Calls to the duty officer’s number at the Foreign Ministry went unanswered during office hours Thursday.
One-third of the world’s countries still apply the death penalty, and 2,390 persons were executed in 2008, according to Amnesty International.
Back in the 1970s, only 23 countries had abolished the death penalty, compared with 139 nations today.
China executed 1,718 people in 2008, although the Supreme People’s Court issued new guidelines recently ordering that the death penalty be handed down only in the case of heinous crimes or crimes against the state.
Original reporting in Mandarin by Xin Yu and in Cantonese by Grace Kei Lai-see. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Cantonese service director: Shiny Li. Translated and written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.