Tuesday, April 5, 2011

China Three execution: Hollow and purposeless

According to Amnesty International, China has executed thousands of people in 2010, more than all the executions in other countries combined. So it was not surprising that the Chinese government, without hesitation and ignoring the Philippine government’s appeal for clemency, executed three Filipinos convicted of drug trafficking last March 30, 2011.

Execution depicted in an 1879 Chinese engraving. Photo courtesy of califboy101.
The three Filipinos, otherwise known as the China Three, were Sally Villanueva, Ramon Credo and Elizabeth Batain. They were convicted separately in 2008 for carrying more than 4,000 grams (or about 9 pounds) of heroin each. Their execution was originally scheduled in February but was moved to March after last-ditch efforts by the Philippine government to plead for their lives. The postponement also came at the cost of the Philippines not attending the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in Oslo last December for the Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, obviously to avoid offending Beijing, and acceding to China’s request for the Philippines to deport 14 wanted Taiwanese nationals to the mainland. But that did not appease Beijing, which the Philippine government apparently miscalculated.

Sally Villanueva, one of the three Filipinos executed in China. Photo courtesy of
the Ordinario Family/
The execution was met with mixed reaction: grief and condemnation of the brutality of the punishment, and blame on the part of the Aquino government for missteps in negotiating with the Chinese government and the inability of the Philippine government as a whole to protect the lives of its overseas workers. One columnist of a daily newspaper in Manila even wrote that showing so much grief for these criminals was unnecessary as they were also condemned by the rest of the world. Mocking the calls by some Catholic bishops for prayers on behalf of the three Filipinos, he said it would be foolish to listen to such prayers.

Mirasol Ordinario-del Finado, Villanueva's sister. Photo courtesy of
Janess Ann J. Ellao/
But Philippine President Benigno Aquino III was more sympathetic saying that the three Filipinos were “victims of a society that could not provide them enough employment in their home country.” Although that made him critical of his own administration, Aquino, however, said this was a problem he was also trying to confront.

Let us set aside our collective grief for the moment and think more critically of the death penalty meted out by the Chinese government and its rationale.

Those three Filipinos were caught by Chinese authorities carrying heroin inside China. Obviously, they were smuggling drugs as mules or couriers, not as drug traffickers. They did not intend to sell those drugs but merely transport and give them to their designated recipients who would actually sell the merchandise. One of the Filipinos even told the Chinese authorities that she was duped into unknowingly carrying the heroin in her luggage.

But the Chinese court convicted all three of them with drug trafficking, an offence punishable by death, a form of generalized punishment that fits all components of the crime no matter what the circumstances are, or the quantity or quality of the crime. The punishment does not differentiate if one is carrying 10 kilos or a mere pound of heroin. Worse, mere possession or the act of carrying the banned substance is considered drug trafficking.

In Canada, as well as in the United States and other countries with more liberal criminal justice systems, this kind of offence is punishable by imprisonment, 10 years maximum. Possession of heroin or cocaine for the purpose of trafficking, of course, is entirely different and usually calls for life imprisonment. But it would not merit the spectacle of the scaffold, as Michel Foucault would describe the death penalty during the olden days in France up to the Revolution. The penalty for possession of cocaine or heroin in Canada depends on its quantity and the regularity of the offence, whether it is the first or subsequent offence.

By any measure, the Chinese death penalty does not fit the crime. The level of punishment is not proportionate to the severity of the offending behaviour. What does this make of Bernard Madoff and his vast Ponzi scheme that robbed thousands of investors of their life savings? Madoff was sentenced to 150 years in prison for his crimes, a slap on the wrist compared to what the three Filipinos got for carrying 9 pounds of heroin. Country singer Willie Nelson was luckier, for merely paying with a song before the courtroom for the misdemeanour of possession of marijuana.

Why then is the Chinese penalty so draconian?

Illegal drug trade is the most lucrative in the global black market today. Drug trafficking is widely regarded as the most serious of drug offences. Sentencing for this crime usually depends on the type of drug (or classification in the country where it is being trafficked) and where the drugs are sold and how they are distributed. For example, if sold to minors like school children, the penalties may be harsher than in other circumstances.

China and Singapore are two countries usually cited for their severe punishment for drug smuggling, which is the death penalty. The execution by the Chinese government of three Filipinos for drug trafficking on March 30, 2011, is the latest of executions in China, although there could be others because China is known for withholding such type of information to the public. In Malaysia, two people were sentenced in 2010 to death for trafficking 1 kilogram of cannabis into the country.

As in Singapore, the death penalty in China is mandatory against drug runners even of low rank, such as the China Three. Judges have little discretion in evaluating the gravity or degree of seriousness of the crime. To China and Singapore, this strict penal code obviously makes for an orderly society, or so they hope. However they look at it, nonetheless, the two countries’ way of dealing with crime is more of a punitive criminal justice system rather than retributive; the punishment usually is inappropriate or not proportionate to the crime. It reflects the stone-age mentality that people would be deterred and discouraged to commit crimes if they are punished harshly for their offences.

In 1994, a Singapore court sentenced an American teenager for vandalism with six strokes by caning. Only the intervention of then U.S. President Bill Clinton prompted the Singapore government to reduce the caning sentence to 4 lashes, which the Americans considered an excessive penalty for the crime.

But does the death penalty effectively deter drug trafficking crimes? Despite the death penalty, China and Singapore are only relatively drug-free. Singapore continues to be implicated in overseas drug operations. Statistics on the effectiveness of the death penalty do not seem to matter to the Chinese government; it is highly doubtful if they even track any meaningful correlation between their draconian measures and their supposed objectives.

Opium storage ship off the coast of Shanghai in Old China.
Photo courtesy of Okinawa Soba.
China perhaps still suffers from the deleterious effects of opium-smoking which was introduced by the British from the cotton-growing regions of India during the 19th century. Illegal trade in opium resulted in two million Chinese being addicted to the drug in 1842. By 1881, the Chinese population of drug addicts had gone up to 120 million. It was a dreadful legacy of the opium trade that weakened the Chinese state, which led to China’s defeat in the two Opium Wars with the British.

With a population of more than 1.3 billion, it would be extremely tough for the Chinese government to make its people behave without some sort of a strict penal handbook that highlights the death penalty as the optimum punishment for crimes. With its horrific experience from the illegal opium trade, China must resort to the ultimate punishment even for offences less serious than drug trafficking such as the crime actually committed by the China Three. Anyway you look at what law the China Three broke, it still makes no sense at all to execute them for merely carrying or possessing heroin.

China Three’s execution was a hollow and purposeless act by the state. If the Chinese government really wanted to deter others from committing the same crime in the future, they should have used the three Filipinos as their conduits in taking further investigations that could have led them to identifying the masterminds of the illegal drug trade. Snapping these Filipinos’ lives meant nothing, except to show to the world that the Chinese government is tough and willing to impose the death penalty even to traffickers or smugglers of low rank. But it doesn’t make any sense if the sentence is not a deterrent to future acts.

To the Philippine government, especially to President Noynoy Aquino, China Three’s execution should be more than a wake-up call.

A Chinese demonstrator. Photo courtesy of Amnesty International (Belgium).
Because of poverty and lack of job opportunities at home, Filipino women are becoming easy targets for drug traffickers. Not only are these women especially susceptible, there were reports that they have been specifically targeted by international drug syndicates to be used as drug mules. Filipino women have been lured to become drug mules as early as 2007 and there has been a dramatic increase in their numbers.

President Aquino and his administration must see to it that the execution of the China Three is not repeated, that no more Filipinos should be doomed to be executed by a foreign government just because they are poor and have no other practical choice to earn a living but to risk their lives as drug mules for syndicates that seem impervious to the strong arm of the law.

As a country as a whole, however, when one of us suffers a fate such as this, we cannot wash our hands off and say this problem does not affect us individually. Deep in our hearts we know a wrong has been done. That we did not do anything about it, even by a mere prayer as those throngs of women and men did to voice their sentiment for the China Three, make us condone the wrong that has been done.

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