Inside China's capital punishment system of forced confessions and secret executions By China correspondent Matthew Carney
China likes to present itself as an alternative model to lead the world in development and governance, but critics say its justice system still has a very long way to go.
More people are executed in China each year than in the rest of the world combined, and it is believed some of them are being wrongly convicted because of fundamental flaws in the justice system.
The ABC has obtained mobile phone video of one execution that took place in northern China.
In the video, a man is taken into a field. Surrounded by dozens of security personnel, he is forced to kneel — and is then shot in the back of the head.
Families only find out after loved ones executed
Executions in China are classified as state secrets. Names of the people killed are not released, and families only find out after their loved ones have been put to death.
Zhen Lin is one of the few people inside China working to advocate against the death penalty.
She works for a small non-government organisation called China Against the Death Penalty.
“Our estimate, sourced from court judgement documents and related media reports, says 2,000 [people] were given the death penalty in the last year,” she said.
“And that is a very conservative estimate.”
At a cemetery in Jiangsu province in Eastern China, Zhu Jingru is inconsolable at her son’s gravesite.
Her pain is very great, as she believes her son was wrongfully convicted and executed for a murder that he did not commit.
Slumped over the gravestone and wiping back tears, Zhu Jingru tells her dead son: “Mum is here to visit you, my poor child.”
“Mum and Dad will definitely seek justice for you, my child, wait for us.”
Ms Zhu has devoted her life to clearing the name of her son, Yu Haidong, who was executed almost a decade ago on October 14, 2008.
She has obtained the original police interview transcripts and says the evidence speaks for itself.
She says her son was not present when the murder he was accused of took place after an argument in a bar.
Ms Zhu says her son’s organs were harvested
Yu had gone to support a friend, but when he turned up at the scene, the crime had already been committed, Ms Zhu says.
Ms Zhu claims the police found a knife in Yu’s car and used that to frame him for the murder.
According to the police forensic investigation, the real murder weapon was a much larger knife, more like a machete.
“They didn’t find any bloodstain on his knife, there was no bloodstain on him,” Ms Zhu said.
“They found none of the victim’s DNA on him. They had no evidence.”
The Chinese courts have refused Ms Zhu’s repeated requests for a retrial.
Ms Zhu says it is a cover-up because the real killer paid a bribe to the judge, and because her son’s organs were harvested.
“We demanded to see the remains of my son, but the court refused,” she said.
“His father was a surgeon, we wanted to see whether my child’s body was intact.
“They only gave us a slip of paper to collect his ashes the next day. It means they took his organs.
“My son was 28 when he died, he was tall at 1.8 metres and handsome. They would sell his organs easily. It’s is a great catastrophe, we have lost our only child.”
Confessions often coerced or extracted under torture
China banned the harvesting of organs from executed prisoners in 2015, but fundamental changes to the justice system still have to take place to stop the innocent being executed.
Experts say a confession, not evidence, is still the primary way to secure a conviction, and often that’s coerced or extracted under torture. Once in court, there’s little chance of a fair trial, and 99 per cent of cases are convicted.
Zhen Lin from China Against the Death Penalty said quotas also have to be reduced.
“At present there’s still a focus on the rate of solving cases and the fulfilling [of] quotas.
“For example, for drug-related crimes they promise how many cases they’ll solve in a year, how many drugs they’ll destroy and how many will be convicted and executed.”
Zhen Lin said the system has actually improved when you consider the number of executions has dropped from 10,000 a year a decade ago, and there have been some reforms.
Now, all death penalty cases have to be reviewed by a higher court — but she says much more has to be done.
“Thirteen types of crimes for the death sentence have been abolished, but China still has 46 types of crimes for capital punishment,” she said.
“We are pushing for non-violent crimes and drug-related crimes to be excluded too.”
But that’s no relief for Ms Zhu, who said she wants justice to be served on behalf of her son.
“I want the truth to be restored and I want those in the circle of the police, the prosecutors and the judges who were corrupted and abused the laws, who were involved in falsification and who fabricated the facts in my son’s case, to be severely punished,” she said.
“This is my demand, it’s hard to say whether it can be achieved.”