China Makes Ultimate Punishment Mobile
(June 15) -- Zhang Shiqiang, known as the Nine-Fingered Devil, first tasted justice at 13. His father caught him stealing and cut off one of Zhang's fingers.
Makers of the death vans say the vehicles, which are used for lethal-injection executions, are a civilized alternative to the firing squad, the method used in most Chinese executions.
Death Van Specs
$37,500 to $75,000, depending on vehicle's size
Twenty-five years later, in 2004, Zhang met retribution once more, after his conviction for double murder and rape. He was one of the first people put to death in China's new fleet of mobile execution chambers.
The country that executed more than four times as many convicts as the rest of the world combined last year is slowly phasing out public executions by firing squad in favor of lethal injections. Unlike the United States and Singapore, the only two other countries where death is administered by injection, China metes out capital punishment from specially equipped "death vans" that shuttle from town to town.
Makers of the death vans say the vehicles and injections are a civilized alternative to the firing squad, ending the life of the condemned more quickly, clinically and safely. The switch from gunshots to injections is a sign that China "promotes human rights now," says Kang Zhongwen, who designed the Jinguan Automobile death van in which "Devil" Zhang took his final ride.
For years, foreign human rights groups have accused China of arbitrary executions and cruelty in its use of capital punishment. The exact number of convicts put to death is a state secret. Amnesty International estimates there were at least 1,770 executions in China in 2005 - vs. 60 in the United States, but the group says on its website that the toll could be as high as 8,000 prisoners.
The "majority are still by gunshot," says Liu Renwen, death penalty researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a think tank in Beijing. "But the use of injections has grown in recent years, and may have reached 40%."
China's critics contend that the transition from firing squads to injections in death vans facilitates an illegal trade in prisoners' organs.
Injections leave the whole body intact and require participation of doctors. Organs can "be extracted in a speedier and more effective way than if the prisoner is shot," says Mark Allison, East Asia researcher at Amnesty International in Hong Kong. "We have gathered strong evidence suggesting the involvement of (Chinese) police, courts and hospitals in the organ trade."
Executions in death vans are recorded on video and audio that is played live to local law enforcement authorities - a measure intended to ensure they are carried out legally.
China's refusal to give outsiders access to the bodies of executed prisoners has added to suspicions about what happens afterward: Corpses are typically driven to a crematorium and burned before relatives or independent witnesses can view them.
Chinese authorities are sensitive to allegations that they are complicit in the organ trade. In March, the Ministry of Health issued regulations explicitly banning the sale of organs and tightening approval standards for transplants.
Even so, Amnesty International said in a report in April that huge profits from the sale of prisoners' organs might be part of why China refuses to consider doing away with the death penalty.
"Given the high commercial value of organs, it is doubtful the new regulations will have an effect," Allison says.
china has death on wheels
Published: June 16, 2006, 2:10 am