CENGONG COUNTY, China--The clip posted on a Chinese video-sharing website was intriguing: "Villagers watch shooting of death row inmate."
There was no information on the identity of the criminal, the crime or place and date of the execution. Chinese media did not report on it, either.
I scrutinized the hundreds of comments posted to the site and looked at the video footage from every angle. It seemed likely the execution took place in a rural area of eastern Guizhou province.
I contacted local authorities and law enforcement officials there and learned that a man was executed in a field in September of last year. It was carried out with a single pistol shot.
The village is in the mountains of Cengong county. It is surrounded by fields of corn and terraced rice paddies.
The villagers said the sentence was carried out in a field on the bank of a river.
Wang Tangjun, 61, lives close to the spot where the execution took place.
He recalled it was a gloriously sunny day when "we heard that morning there would be an execution by firing squad, and a throng of villagers rushed over."
In the video, laborers, women with parasols and mothers and their children can be seen standing on a hill and the roofs of homes overlooking the field as the death row inmate was escorted to the spot to be killed.
A dozen or so vehicles marked with the word "justice" show up, sirens blaring. They stop near thick undergrowth.
According to local law enforcement officials, 27-year-old Pan Yanlong was put to death for murdering three men, including one with whom his wife had been having an affair. The crimes were committed in 2010. Pan was born in the village of Liyuan, also in Cengong county.
He was led by five uniformed guards, weaving their way through the weeds. They pointed to the side of a footpath between two fields and ordered Pan to kneel. Two seconds later a gunshot rang out. Spectators up on the hill, some laughing, ask, "Is it over already?" Just over a minute after the group arrived, Pan was dead.
His body was left where it fell. It was only retrieved later by his relatives.
Liyuan's vice mayor, 58-year-old Pan Zhuqing, said he was contacted by the authorities at 7 a.m. on the day in question and told that an execution was scheduled for 3 p.m.
Pan's parents and siblings, who are migrant workers, were not in the village, so his aunt and a number of acquaintances went to the prison to meet with him.
A neighbor, Pan Shichao, 45, said, "We barely had time to tell Pan that we had come in his parents' place since they wouldn't be able to make it in time."
"These kinds of public executions have been performed in this area for a long time," said the vice mayor, recalling that a rapist was put to death locally some 30 years ago.
A 22-year-old homemaker who lives in Liyuan recalled watching two people shot to death near a dry riverbed just over a decade ago. "I think when the government carries out an execution, they just do it wherever they feel like it. It's really sloppy."
Villagers do not seem bothered that some executions are performed in public. The condemned man's grandmother, 81-year-old Zhang Yumei, lamenting that she could not see her grandson one last time, said, "There is no loss of face just because it happened in public."
STRONG SUPPORT FOR SETTING AN EXAMPLE
Tong Zongjin, an associate professor at China University of Political Science and Law, points out that "public executions were a very regular occurrence until the 1980s." As a lingering effect of the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, the custom of publicly shaming suspects in so-called public trials continued long afterward in China.
The Supreme People's Court, China's highest court, however, issued a notice in 1986 banning showy public executions as a deterrent. Public executions began to cease in the 1990s, mostly in major cities like Beijing and Shanghai. The recently uploaded video drew much criticism from Internet users. One wrote, "Death row inmates deserve dignity, too."
Lethal injection and execution by firing squad are the prescribed means of carrying out death sentences in China, but there are no clear rules on where they should take place. There are also sharp regional differences in levels of education and awareness among residents of the law.
"In areas where development has been slow to come, judges, prosecutors and residents have not changed from old ways of thinking about the rule of law, democracy and human rights," says Liu Renwen, a senior member of the Department of Criminal Law at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
As villages do not have facilities to execute people, authorities in some areas continue to perform executions in outdoor locations.
The Chinese government, meanwhile, has been trying to reduce the number of executions carried out. In 2011 it abolished the death penalty for 13 non-violent economic crimes such as theft of cultural properties and smuggling.
The actual number of executions carried out in China is not made public as this is considered a "state secret."
According to estimates by the Dui Hua Foundation, a privately run organization in the United States that monitors human rights in China, there were approximately 3,000 executions in China last year. While that is less than the 10,000-plus executions carried out annually in the 1990s, it is still far more than the 682 executions in 20 countries across the globe confirmed in 2012 by international human rights group Amnesty International.
Liu, of the Department of Criminal Law, admits that abolishing the death penalty is unrealistic for now, but he argues that "the Party Central Committee should instruct officials to at least try not to execute people in front of the masses and should, from a humanitarian perspective, conduct all executions via lethal injection, which causes little pain."
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