Ten men were sentenced to death in a stadium filled with thousands of spectators in Lufeng, a town in southeastern China on December 16. People were quick to denounce all aspects of this sinister spectacle: from the humiliation suffered by the prisoners, to the harshness of the punishment to the ineffectiveness of this kind of policy in the fight against drug trafficking.
The 12 accused men were brought to the stadium in a police vehicle with sirens blaring. Then, they were led, one-by-one, to a small stage to receive their sentences. Videos show the men standing on stage as their sentences were read aloud.
In another video shared on Chinese social media, the person filming lingers on one of the men who has just been sentenced. Several police officers force him into a pick-up. On several occasions, the man looks back towards the stage, where several people can be heard crying and shouting. Nearby, the other prisoners are also being forced into pick-up trucks.
Ten of the twelve people sentenced were condemned to death. According to Chinese media, they were immediately brought outside of the stadium to be executed. Seven were sentenced for crimes related to drug trafficking and three others for murder or theft.
Public trials, a Maoist tradition
Thousands of people attended the trial. Four days earlier, the Lufeng tribunal released a press statement inviting people living in this area to attend. The information was mostly shared on social media.
This is the press release shared by the Lufeng tribunal inviting the population to come attend the public trial of the 12 accused men.
In reality, public trials are actually quite rare in China. On social media, some people posted about how this practice reminded them of the beginning of the cultural revolution, launched by Mao Zedong in 1966. At the time, many people-- supposedly members of the elite-- were publically humiliated.
However, it seems like this practice has resurfaced of late. In Lufeng, eight people were condemned to death during a public trial in June-- similarly, these condemned men had also committed crimes related to drugs. This practice was also reintroduced for crimes related to "terrorism" in the region of Xinjiang.
"Nothing proves that executions will stop problems related to drugs"
Nee is critical of the severity of the sentences. He also wonders if they are actually useful in the fight against drug trafficking.
Even though China executes hundreds, even thousands, of people per year-- including many convicted of crimes related to drugs-- nothing shows that that this practice is actually stopping the problems related to drug trafficking or production, which are actually on the rise in China. Even though I’m sure it does scare away some people.
The area around Lufeng is known for synthetic drug production (especially methamphetamine and ketamine). In 2014, 3,000 police officers arrested 182 people and confiscated three tons of methamphetamines in the area. At the time, local authorities declared that the region was responsible for a third of methamphetamine production across the country.
Several thousands of people are executed each year in China, according to estimates, even though authorities refuse to report the real numbers. China executes more people than all the other countries in the world put together.
"With these theatrical trials, the authorities want to show off their power"
William Nee (@williamnee) is a researcher for Amnesty International in Hong Kong.
The fact that [the authorities] invited the public to this so-called trial and paraded the accused men through a stadium… is cruel and degrading for the prisoners. Moreover, the fate of the accused had already been decided by the Supreme People’s Court– the highest court in the country’s judicial system– so the judges in the stadium didn’t actually decide anything. They simply announced the verdict to the public.
With these theatrical trials, the authorities want to show that they are determined to fight against drugs and ready to execute people to this aim. They want to publicize their power as much as possible.
"The death penalty shouldn’t be given to people for crimes related to drugs”
Crimes related to drug trafficking don’t fall into the category of what you might call the most serious crimes. Yet, according to international law, in countries where the death penalty has not yet been abolished, it can only be handed down for these extremely serious crimes [Editor’s note: This is according to Article 6-2 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which China signed but has not yet ratified]. So China should immediately stop handing down the death penalty for crimes related to drugs.
Among the people executed in the country, 56.9% were convicted of voluntary homicide, 23.3% of theft and 13.4% of crimes related to drugs, according to the website "China Judgements Online", as cited by Amnesty International. This website, which was launched by the Supreme People’s Court, contains a database with numerous documents from Chinese courts.