China makes ultimate punishment mobile

CHONGQING, China — 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.

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.

State secret

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.

Local executions

Makers of death vans say they save money for poor localities that would otherwise have to pay to construct execution facilities in prisons or court buildings. The vans ensure that prisoners sentenced to death can be executed locally, closer to communities where they broke the law.

That "deters others from committing crime and has more impact" than executions carried out elsewhere, Kang says.

Jinguan — "Golden Champion" in Chinese — lies an hour's drive from Chongqing in southwestern China, below the green slopes of Cliff Mountain. Along with the death vans, the company also makes bulletproof limousines for the country's rich and armored trucks for banks. Jinguan's glossy death van brochure is printed in both Chinese and English.

From the outside, the vans resemble the police vehicles seen daily on China's roads. A look inside reveals their function.

"I'm most proud of the bed. It's very humane, like an ambulance," Kang says. He points to the power-driven metal stretcher that glides out at an incline. "It's too brutal to haul a person aboard," he says. "This makes it convenient for the criminal and the guards."

The lethal cocktail used in the injections is mixed only in Beijing, something that has prompted complaints from local courts.

"Some places can't afford the cost of sending a person to Beijing — perhaps $250 — plus $125 more for the drug," says Qiu Xingsheng, a former judge working as a lawyer in Chongqing. Death-by-gunshot requires "very little expense," he says.

Qiu has attended executions by firing squad where the kneeling prisoner is shot in the back of the head. The guards "ask the prisoner to open his mouth, so the bullet can pass out of the mouth and leave the face intact," he says.

No debate

In the United States, some death row inmates and death penalty opponents want the Supreme Court to declare lethal injections cruel and unusual. A recent lawsuit claimed inmates suffer excruciating pain during executions because they do not get enough anesthetic.

There is no such debate in China, which uses the same three-drug cocktail as the U.S. federal government and most U.S. states: sodium thiopental to make the condemned unconscious, pancuronium bromide to stop breathing, potassium chloride to stop the heart.

People's Daily and other state media describe the mix as a "non-virulent drug," bringing about "immediate clinical death while inflicting no physiological pain."

"It doesn't matter what method you use," Qiu says. "If someone is convicted of a capital crime, they should be executed."

Chinese prisoners condemned to death are not offered a choice of injection over gunshot, but Qiu and others suspect wealth and connections can buy the newer method.

"It is a real phenomenon that gangsters and corrupt officials are killed by injection more than gunshot, so their bodies are intact, and death is less painful," Liu says. "But I doubt it is government policy. These criminals are usually held in cities, where the injection is used. Common criminals are held in county-level facilities, where shooting is more common."

Tycoon Yuan Baojing was executed in March in a death van, in northeast China's Liaoyang city. He had been convicted of arranging the murder of a man trying to blackmail him for attempting to assassinate a business partner.

Sixty-eight different crimes — more than half non-violent offenses such as tax evasion and drug smuggling — are punishable by death in China. That means the death vans are likely to keep rolling.

"If we abolish the death penalty, then crime will grow," Kang says. (6.15.2006, Calum MacLeod)


China's mobile death fleet

BEIJING - Responding to criticism that China cruelly and arbitrarily executes a large number of its citizens each year, officials are gradually moving toward what they say is a more discreet way of killing its prisoners: execution vans.

Human-rights critics say they may look more like officially sanctioned roaming death squads, which simply allow China to execute its prisoners quickly, easily and out of the public eye. Chinese legal officials counter that the fleet of execution vehicles is a "more humane" form of carrying out death sentences. One thing for sure: they are a radical departure from publicly held execution rallies organized in the past.

As opposed to the shootings that took place in public, inmates

are now executed in purpose-built vans in an almost clinical environment. Prisoners are confined to a bed, similar to an ambulance stretcher, and put to death with lethal injections. The contents of the drug cocktails used for the lethal injections are mixed in Beijing and delivered to local intermediate courts where the trials take place.

China developed its fleet of mobile execution chambers slowly, after cautiously experimenting with lethal injections for the first time in selected provinces beginning in 1997. It is now adopting them on a larger scale in more localities. The exact number of vans being used is a state secret. What is known, however, is that Yunnan province alone has 18 mobile units in use.

"I think it is definitely progress for China, and it shows more consideration both for the people sentenced to death and for others" (their relatives and the public), said Li Guifang, vice chairman of the Criminal Affairs Committee of the All-China Lawyers Association. "There is less pain for the convicted."

But rights activists point out that evidence from the United States shows that lethal injection, too, inflicts pain.

Beijing officials plan to assign mobile execution to designated provinces, but would not say which ones.

The move from firing squad to lethal injection "demonstrates tremendous progress in China's criminal-judgment proceedings", Yin Yong, director of Zhejiang province's Supreme Court, told the state media last month.

First tried out in 1997 in Yunnan province - a southwestern region bordering the Golden Triangle and notorious for its drug trafficking - death vans are now ready for use in booming industrialized places where crime rates have soared, such as the coastal province of Zhejiang. That province plans to start using them from September.

Human-rights groups claim China executes more criminals every year than the rest of the world combined. The exact number remains a highly confidential state secret. Amnesty International recorded at least 1,770 death sentences carried out in China in 2005, but it says the real number could be as high as 8,000.

The mobile death fleet is being touted by Chinese legal officials as the latest advance in China's judicial system as Beijing tries to revamp its international image ahead of playing host to the 2008 Summer Olympic Games.

The vans are now in vogue because they allow for death sentences to be carried out without the usual trip to the execution grounds and they are cheaper - each execution van is priced at about 500,000 yuan (US$60,000) and, of course, can be reused. Lethal injections require only four people to assist in the execution, while the practice of death by firing squad needs numerous guards at the execution site and along the road to the site.

The vans also prove that China has abandoned a long-standing practice of public executions. After China signed the United Nations Convention against Torture in 1984, it issued new regulations banning execution rallies. Rights activists claim, however, that the rallies have continued during the various "Strike Hard" anti-crime crackdowns first initiated by the government in 1983 and revived in 1996. But these rallies no long happen in large cities where foreigners live.

Yet as mobile execution chambers begin to roll silently into more and more towns, making capital punishment easier and faster to deliver, fears have risen among human-rights activists and death-penalty opponents that China is relying more on lethal injection because it is harvesting organs of executed prisoners in an effort to supply the country's growing market for organ transplants.

Chinese hospitals started organ transplants in the 1960s and now perform between 10,000 and 20,000 transplants annually, according to official figures. A kidney transplant in China costs about $7,200, but this official price could swell to $20,000 or even $50,000 if the patient is willing to pay more to obtain an organ sooner. Even those prices, though, amount only to a fraction of the price for an organ transplant in developed countries.

As patients from Malaysia, Japan, Hong Kong and Singapore flock to China for transplants, the business is bringing in thousands of dollars to the country's underfunded health system. Suspicions are growing abroad that the use of newly developed execution vans may be linked to this boom. The British Transplantation Society and Amnesty International in May strongly condemned China for harvesting prisoners' organs.

China carried out 8,000 kidney transplants last year but only 270, or fewer than 4% of the organs, came from voluntary donations.

"The use of mobile execution chambers exacerbates existing problems with prison-related issues in China," Sharon Hom, executive director of Human Rights in China, wrote in an e-mail interview. "It facilitates the black-market trade in organ sales particularly because there is no access for independent monitors, such as the Red Cross, to prisons, detention centers and labor camps."

In China, it is illegal to remove organs without the permission of the person in question or his family members, but critics say these obligations are commonly violated, not the least because of the secrecy surrounding such operations. Regulations issued in 1984 stipulate that the removal of organs from executed prisoners should be "kept strictly secret, and attention must be paid to avoiding negative repercussions".

Authorities routinely refuse to give relatives access to bodies of executed prisoners, cremating them quickly after the executions, says Robin Munro, a British expert on China's criminal justice system.

"Once the body is cremated, it is impossible to determine whether any organs have been removed," she said. (7.21.2006, Antoaneta Bezlova)  

China's hi-tech 'death van' where criminals are executed and then their organs are sold on black market

Death will come soon for Jiang Yong. A corrupt local planning official with a taste for the high life, Yong solicited money from businessmen eager to expand in China's economic boom.

Showering gifts on his mistress, known as Madam Tang, the unmarried official took more than 1 million in bribes from entrepreneurs wanting permission to build skyscrapers on land which had previously been protected from development.

But Yong, a portly, bespectacled figure, was caught by the Chinese authorities during a purge on corrupt local officials last year.

He confessed and was sentenced to death. China executed 1,715 people last year, so one more death would hardly be remarkable. 

But there will be nothing ordinary about Yong's death by lethal injection. Unless he wins an appeal, he will draw his final breath strapped inside a vehicle that has been specially developed to make executions more cost-effective and efficient.

In chilling echoes of the 'gas-wagon' project pioneered by the Nazis to slaughter criminals, the mentally ill and Jews, this former member of the China People's Party will be handcuffed to a so-called 'humane' bed and executed inside a gleaming new, hi-tech, mobile 'death van.'

After trials of the mobile execution service were launched quietly three years ago - then hushed up to prevent an international row about the abuse of human rights before the Olympics last summer - these vehicles are now being deployed across China.

The number of executions is expected to rise to a staggering 10,000 people this year (not an impossible figure given that at least 68 crimes - including tax evasion and fraud - are punishable by death in China).

Developed by Jinguan Auto, which also makes bullet-proof limousines for the new rich in this vast country of 1.3 billion people, the vans appear unremarkable.

They cost 60,000, can reach top speeds of 80mph and look like a police vehicle on patrol. Inside, however, the 'death vans' look more like operating theatres.

Executions are monitored by video to ensure they comply with strict rules, making it possible to describe precisely how Jiang Yong will die. After being sedated at the local prison, he will be loaded into the van and strapped to an electric-powered stretcher.

This then glides automatically towards the centre of the van, where doctors will administer three drugs: sodium thiopental to cause unconsciousness; pancuronium bromide to stop breathing and, finally, potassium chloride to stop the heart.

Death is reputed to be quick and painless - not that there is anyone to testify to this. The idea for such a 'modern' scheme is rooted in one of the darkest episodes in human history.

The Nazis used adapted vans as mobile gas chambers from 1940 until the end of World War II. In order to make the best use of time spent transporting criminals and Jewish prisoners, Hitler's scientists developed the vehicles with a hermetically sealed cabin that was filled with carbon monoxide carried by a tube from the exhaust pipes. 

The vans were first tested on child patients in a Polish psychiatric hospital in 1940. The Nazis then developed bigger models to carry up to 50 prisoners. They looked like furniture removal vans. Those to be killed were ordered to hand over their valuables, then stripped and locked inside.

As gas was pumped into the container and the van headed towards graves being dug by other prisoners, the muffled cries of those inside could be heard, along with banging on the side.

With the 'cargo' dead, all that remained was for gold fillings to be hacked from the victims' mouths, before the bodies were tipped into the graves.

Now, six decades later, just like the Nazis, China insists these death vans are 'progress'.

The vans save money on building execution facilities in prisons or courts. And they mean that prisoners can be executed locally, closer to communities where they broke the law. 

'This deters others from committing crime and has more impact,' said one official.

Indeed, a spokesman for the makers of the 'death vans' openly touted for trade this week, saying they are the perfect way to 'efficiently and cleanly' dispatch convicts with lethal injections. Reporting steady sales throughout China, a spokesman for Jinguan Auto - which is situated in a green valley an hour's drive from Chongqing in south-western China - said the firm was bucking the economic trend and had sold ten more vans recently.

The exact number in operation is a state secret. But it is known that Yunnan province alone has 18 mobile units, while dozens of others are patrolling in five other sprawling provinces. Each van is the size of a specially refitted 17-seater minibus.

'We have not sold our execution cars to foreign countries yet,' beamed a proud spokesman. But if they need one, they could contact our company directly.'

Officials say the vehicles are a 'civilised alternative' to the traditional single shot to the head (used in 60 per cent of Chinese executions), ending the life of the condemned quickly, clinically and safely - proving that China 'promotes human rights now,' says Kang Zhongwen, designer of the 'death van'.

It seems a perverse claim, but certainly the shootings can be gruesome. Once carried out in public parks, these executions -sometimes done in groups - have seen countless cases of prisoners failing to die instantly and writhing in agony on the ground before being finished off.

There are other concerns: soldiers carrying out the shooting complain that they are splashed with Aids-contaminated blood. After the shooting, relatives are often presented with the bullet hacked from the condemned's body - and forced to pay the price of the ammunition.

While posing as a modernising force in public, Chinese leaders remain brutal within their own borders. They are, however, anxious to be seen to be moving away from violence against their own people, stressing that all judicial decisions have been taken out of the hands of vengeful local officials and must be ruled on from Beijing.

China has traditionally always taken a ruthless, unemotional view of crime and punishment. Before injections and bullets, the most chilling sentence was death by Ling Chi - death by a thousand cuts - which was abolished only in 1905.

The condemned man was strapped to a table and then, in what was also known as 'slow slicing', his eyes were gouged out.

This was designed to heighten the terror of not being able to see what part of his body would suffer next. Using a sharp knife, the executioner sliced at the condemned's body - chopping off the ears, fingers, nose and toes, before starting to cut off whole limbs.

Traditionalists insisted that exactly 3,600 slices were made. The new mobile execution vans may, indeed, be more humane than this, but their main advantage in official eyes is financial. 

According to undercover investigations by human rights' groups, the police, judiciary and doctors are all involved in making millions from China's huge trade in human body parts.

Inside each 'death van' there is a dedicated team of doctors to 'harvest' the organs of the deceased. The injections leave the body intact and in pristine condition for such lucrative work.

After checking that the victim is dead, the medical team first remove the eyes. Then, wearing surgical gowns and masks, they remove the kidney, liver, pancreas and lungs.

Little goes to waste, though the heart cannot be used, having been poisoned by the drugs.

The organs are dispatched in ice boxes to hospitals in the sprawling cities of Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, which have developed another specialist trade: selling the harvested organs.

At clinics all over China, these organs are transplanted into the ailing bodies of the wealthy - and thousands more who come as 'organ tourists' from neighbouring countries such as Japan, South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan.

Chinese hospitals perform up to 20,000 organ transplants each year. A kidney transplant in China costs 5,000, but can rise to 30,000 if the patient is willing to pay more to obtain an organ quickly.

With more than 10,000 kidney transplants carried out each year, fewer than 300 come from voluntary donations. The British Transplantation Society and Amnesty International have condemned China for harvesting prisoners' organs.

Laws introduced in 2006 make it an offence to remove the organs of people against their will, and banned those under 18 from selling their organs.

But, tellingly, the law does not cover prisoners.

'Organs can be extracted in a speedier and more effective way using these vans than if the prisoner is shot,' says Amnesty International.

'We have gathered strong evidence suggesting the involvement of Chinese police, courts and hospitals in the organ trade.'

The bodies cannot be examined. Corpses are driven to a crematorium and burned before independent witnesses can view them.

A police official, who operates a 'multi-functional and nationwide, first-class, fixed execution ground' where prisoners are shot, confirmed to the Mail that it is always a race against time to save the organs of the executed - and that mobile death vans are better equipped for the job.

'The liver loses its function only five minutes after the human cardiac arrest,' the officer told our researcher.

'The kidney will become dysfunctional 30 minutes after cardiac arrest. So the removal of organs must be completed at the execution ground within 15 minutes, then put in an ice box or preservation solution.'

While other countries worry about the morality of the death penalty, China has no such qualms.

For the Beijing regime, it is not a question of whether they should execute offenders, but how to do it most efficiently - and make the most money from it. (3.27.2009, Andrew Malone)


Execution van

Execution Van
Manufacturer Jinguan Group
Also called Mobile Execution Unit
Production 1997 - Present

Execution vans, also referred to as "mobile execution units", were developed by the government of the People's Republic of China and were first used in 1997. Prisoners are strapped to a stretcher and executed via lethal injection inside the van. The vans allow for death sentences to be carried out without having to move the prisoner to an execution ground. The vans also require less manpower per execution, requiring only four people to assist with the injection.[1] Although the PRC claims that the vans are more humane than previous forms of execution, human rights groups predict the execution rate in China will increase because of mobile capital punishment.[2]



Following the 1997 decision to legalize lethal injections as a form of execution, PRC officials began using execution vans across China, however it did not become popular until 2006. They state that the vans are cost-effective by allowing communities without the money to build dedicated death rows to kill prisoners without the costs associated with sending a prisoner away for death. However former Chinese judge and current lawyer Qiu Xingsheng argues that "some places can't afford the cost of sending a person to Beijing — perhaps $250 — plus $125 more for the drug."[3] As Beijing is the only place where the injection is manufactured, the vans have allowed localities to administer the death sentence where the crime took place. Estimates place the number of execution vans currently in operation at around 40, although the PRC will not confirm this number.

A converted 24-seat bus, the execution van keeps the appearance of a normal police van on the outside with no markings indicating its purpose. The rear of the vehicle houses a windowless chamber where the execution takes place. Several cameras are present and feed closed-circuit televisions in the front of the van; a recording can be made if desired. The bed itself slides out of the wall under its own power, on which the convicted person is strapped down. A syringe is put into the arm by a technician and a police official administers the injection by pressing a button. The subject experiences a loss of consciousness and death within 30 to 60 seconds. The drug used is a highly concentrated solution of sodium pentobarbital[citation needed] (a chemical with which extensive experience has been gained in the euthanasia of animals, including larger mammals). Central nervous system depression sets in, ultimately stopping breathing and depriving the heart and brain of oxygen (hypoxia), ending the person's life. This procedure differs significantly from the most common execution method employed in the US, in which 3 drugs are used: one to cause rapid unconsciousness (pentothal), muscle paralysis (pavulon) and death through the heart muscle being depressed by injection of a potassium chloride solution. The first execution of a person in the US using sodium pentobarbital occurred on December 16, 2010.[4]


The PRC government claims that this is a more humane form of killing people, being far less painful than firing squad executions. Zhao Shijie, president of the Yunnan Provincial High Court, was quoted as praising the new system: "The use of lethal injection shows that China's death penalty system is becoming more civilized and humane."[2] While the vans have moved China away from previous days of large public executions, human rights activists counter that they are "like government-sanctioned death squads," and allow for an increased number and a higher efficiency of executions.

There is fear also that mobile execution units have made organ harvesting much easier and more profitable, as lethal injection does not damage the body. Although the Ministry of Health in March 2006 that banned the sale of organs[3], many[who?] believe that it has had no effect. Activists charge that the bodies are quickly cremated, which makes it impossible for family members to determine if organs have in fact been removed.[1]

Notable executions

On December 22, 2003, organized crime leader Liu Yong was executed in an execution van in a controversial ruling. Liu was convicted of 32 charges and sentenced to death in 2000, but was granted a reprieve after appealing the case on the grounds that his confession was forced. Liu was given a retrial in which the two trial regulations were bypassed by the Supreme Court for the first time.[5]

On March 17, 2006, billionaire Yuan Baojing was executed for the arranged murder of a blackmailer.[3] He is thought to be the wealthiest man to have been executed in the PRC.[citation needed]

See also


  1. ^ a b Antoaneta Bezlova (2006-07-21). "China's Mobile Death Fleet". Asia Times Online. 
  2. ^ a b "Undermining Global Security: the European Union's arms exports". IANSA. 
  3. ^ a b c MacLeod, Calum (2006-06-15). "China makes ultimate punishment mobile". USA Today Online. Retrieved 2010-05-02. 
  4. ^ Mims, Divina (December 16, 2010). "Death row inmate executed using pentobarbital in lethal injection". CNN. Retrieved December 16, 2010. 
  5. ^ "Mafia kingpin dies in execution van". Taipei Times Online. 2003-12-23.

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