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Execution with no farewell puts death penalty in China under new scrutiny

GUANGZHOU--In letters to his daughter from death row, Zeng Chengjie assured her he would be reprieved, like others convicted of economic crimes in China.

Instead he was executed, his body cremated, and his loved ones left to find out days later via a written notice posted at a courthouse.

The incident triggered a public outcry and spotlighted China's combination of a murky criminal justice system and aggressive, sometimes unpredictable, use of capital punishment.

Zeng's 24-year-old daughter rushed to the Changsha Intermediate Court after hearing rumors of her father's death, hoping an official could reassure her. Instead she found the statement.

“I felt like I was in a dream, that this couldn't be happening,” Zeng Shan said. “In his letters he always said there was hope.”

Even after a relative collected his ashes, she said, “I still couldn't believe it.”

Zeng had been convicted of “illegal fundraising,” although his lawyer argues his assets could have easily covered his debts — if the state had not confiscated them.

China is believed to execute more people than any other country.

It stepped up capital punishment in the 1980s and 90s to try to prevent crime amid social upheavals that came with drastic economic reform. More recently it has cut down, with a key reform in 2007 requiring the Supreme Court to review all death sentences.

Judicial killings dropped from 10,000 a year to 4,000 in the last decade, usually by lethal injection, but “China continues to lead the world in executions,” Human Rights Watch said in January, citing estimates as actual figures are secret — so much so that Beijing has not publicized the drop.

The number of crimes eligible for execution was reduced from 68 to 55 in 2011, and in November China pledged further cuts.

But Randy Peerenboom, a law professor with La Trobe University in Melbourne, said: “I don't think people should get too excited about it because there are so many crimes subject to the death penalty, and that's likely to be the case even after they further narrow the range.”

Many Chinese support the death penalty but resent a judicial system that seems to favor the powerful, public opinion polls show, though representative samples are hard to obtain.

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