Photos of a Chinese girl He Xiuling, uploaded on Internet recently, showed her laughing and joking in her final hours on death row. The disturbing images of the girl have brought the death penalty in China to international attention once again.
One of the photographs showed her asking for a black top to wear to make her look "less fat" for her execution. Another photograph showed her at breakfast on the morning of her execution. Daily Mail says "details of her case from court records and official reports and interviews are likely to stir debate over the death penalty in China."
The photographs were taken in China's central Wuhan province in 2003. Only very few people had seen them before they were recently released. They were taken inside No.1 Detention Center for Women in Wuhan, central China, on June 24, 2003. But the newspaper that took the photographs did not release them because it was thought they were too sensitive and might raise official reaction.
The images shocked many Chinese. They showed personal details of the convicted drug traffickers preparing for death. Some of the girls were shown receiving execution outfits. Some were being fed last meals, and some were writing final letters. Other photographs showed the women crying a few minutes before their execution.
Xiuling was the daughter of a petty business man. She grew up in Xiantao, a town in China's rural Hubei province. She took a job at a factory after finishing high school. At 24, she moved to the cosmopolitan city of Zhongshan, in Guangzhou, against the wishes of her family. She met her boyfriend Wang Qizhi whom she soon discovered was a drug dealer. Her boyfriend managed to cajole her to stay in the relationship with gifts of jewelry and a mobile phone. In January 2002, Wang got Xiuling to carry a consignment of heroine concealed in a microwave from Guangzhou to Wuhan. In February and March, she did two more successful runs, but she was arrested on the third run with 15 lb of heroin. Wang escaped. Xiuling followed police advise to confess in return for a light sentence, but she was sentenced to death in September 2002 and executed nine months later with a bullet to the back of her head.
According to a journalist who visited her in death row, "Her fellow inmates told her the sentence would be changed to 15 years in prison. She would sing in her cell. She was a simple girl who never thought her execution would really go ahead. I think warders encouraged her to believe that, maybe out of kindness. But they must have known she had no chance."
Xiunling continued in psychological denial of the reality that she was going to die till the last minutes when she broke down crying. According to Daily Mail, Xiuling believed even in the last hours that she was going to get a reprieve. She told her fellow inmates happily, "I'll only be 40 when I am released."
At her trial, Xiuing had pleaded with the judge to give her a second chance to live saying she was still young.
According to Daily Mail, 25-year-old He Xiuling was not a hardened criminal but a "simple girl," a countryside girl who was lured into the drug trade by her boyfriend.
The newspaper photographer who captured Xiuling's last hours was 36-year-old Yan Yuhong. Yan's newspaper wanted a photo essay to illustrate the UN's International Day Against Drug Abuse that was coming two days after execution of the girls. According to Yan, Xiuling was very relaxed in her last hours, but her mood changed in the last hour. Yan said: "I was there from 9pm the night before the execution until the moment they were led away to their deaths. The women were a little bit surprised, but after a while they accepted me. I was surprised that the prisoners had such a good relationship with each other. You might expect it of students at college together or soldiers serving in the army together, but not among condemned prisoners.They are criminals, but they are human beings too. They have a good side as well as a bad side."
CBS News reports recent estimates indicating that China carries out about 4,000 executions annually, as against 46 in the United States.
The images have raised criticism that in China it is only the poorest people without connections who have to face the full force of China's harsh penal code. People from wealthy families with political connections often have their sentences reduced. CBS News reports that John Kamm of the Dui Hua Foundation, said: "If you're executing thousands of people every year and in a very densely populated country with deep familial and kinship ties, you are generating a lot of discontent, a lot of unhappiness."
Xiuling faced the reality of her execution only in the last hours. According to the newspaper photographer Yan,
"She was taken to sign the formal execution papers and was surrounded by strangers. There were a lot of people staring at her and I was the only person she recognized. She looked at me and smiled. I tried to give her a comforting look in return. When she left, she was in tears. To me, she just seemed like a young, lost girl. I believe she was an innocent. Some people traffic drugs to make money and others do it because they are innocents. She was one of the innocents. I don’t think she had any idea about the damage that drugs do to society and to people."
She wrote a letter to her parents apologizing for being a "disappointment." In the letter she wrote:
"You used to tell me off for being naughty. But I never knew I would get into so much trouble. I wanted to go away and make money to send back and to look after you but it all went wrong."
Yan's newspaper did not publish the photos out of fear of reaction by the state. But recently they were published on the website of a Hong Kong TV station. The photos raised fierce debate among Chinese. Many Chinese felt that executing the women was miscarriage of justice. A comment said:
"What these women did is nowhere near as bad as what corrupt officials in China do. They are the ones who should be shot."