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Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade - 20/11/2015 - Australia's advocacy for the abolition of the death penalty

DELLER, Mr John, Secretary, Falun Dafa Association of Australia Inc.

DOBSON, Ms Caroline, Research Coordinator, Falun Dafa Association of Australia Inc.

ZHAO, Dr Lucy, President, Falun Dafa Association of Australia Inc.


CHAIR: Welcome. I have to advise you that in giving evidence before this subcommittee you are protected by parliamentary privilege. I remind you of an obligation not to give us false or misleading evidence. To do so can be contempt of the parliament. These are public proceedings and the committee will consider a request to have evidence heard in camera if you make it. If you object to answering a question and state the ground for that objection, we will then consider the matter. We also ask witnesses to refrain from naming any individuals who may be associated with current cases in order to protect privacy. Would you like to make an opening statement?

Mr Deller : Yes, we would like to do that. Shall I proceed with that?

CHAIR: Whoever you elect to start would be fine.

Mr Deller : The Falun Dafa Association of Australia appreciates the opportunity today to address the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Human Rights Subcommittee on Australia's advocacy for the abolition of the death penalty. The teachings of Falun Dafa affirm the sanctity of human life and are very clear on the seriousness of taking a life in any form. The members of the association are guided by the teachings of Falun Dafa and the principles of zhen, shan, ren: truthfulness, benevolence, forbearance. Many of us were moved by the compassion of federal members who gathered for a candlelight vigil in front of Parliament House in March this year, appealing for mercy for Australians facing the death penalty in Indonesia, yet our submission focuses on the People's Republic of China and is clearly informed by the persecution of Falun Gong.

China is identified as the major killer in relation to the death penalty in the world today. Although Falun Gong practitioners are not generally sentenced to death by a Chinese court, the killing of Chinese citizens under the death penalty, extrajudicial killing and campaigns of eradication, as suffered by Falun Gong, all have the same root: the party's method of maintaining power and control through threats, corruption, inducements and the absence of the rule of law. Developments on the application of the death penalty may be separate to the issue of extrajudicial killing in China, but positive reform in both areas has a common foundation—a change in how the Chinese people and/or the Chinese government value human life.

We understand that the Australian government places a high priority on ending the death penalty in China, which some may view is a key for improving all human rights in China. Furthermore, we appreciate that a change in China's attitude and policy towards killing its own people will be beneficial to human rights in all aspects there. We propose that understanding what Falun Dafa is and why it has been brutally persecuted for 16 years is also a key to such change. Efforts to end the persecution or end the death penalty in China essentially require the same initiative—to help revive the moral foundation of Chinese people, where they act not because of fear or greed but because they have understood respect for human life. Without this change, any new policy or law regarding the death penalty may not be effective in China.

There are already many Chinese laws and international treaties that prohibit killing and torture by the state or individuals, yet such atrocities continue and even thrive in China in an environment of perverted commercialism. In the case of Falun Gong practitioners, there are over 3,850 documented cases of death following torture and detention, plus reports of tens of thousands killed through organ harvesting. Just like China's annual statistics on the number of death-row prisoners kill, the likelihood is that the true death count of Falun Gong practitioners is many times higher.

Australia can advocate for change in China at both governmental and non-governmental levels. Highlighting the good and moral aspects of traditional Chinese culture can herald a new way forward where respect for human life replaces disregard for the sanctity of life in the pursuit of power or selfishness. Abolition of the death penalty will also have to confront China's reliance on organs taken from prisoners killed to service this highly profitable yet immoral transplantation business. We applaud and encourage Australia to reinforce advocacy for the elimination of the death penalty in China and to also urge China to follow international standards and respect universal human rights. We appreciate the Australian government's protection of Falun Gong practitioners in Australia and its advocacy at bilateral human rights dialogue.

Our recommendations in short are: urge China to sign the second optional protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; engage China's civil society to promote abolition of both the death penalty and extrajudicial killing; and engage China through bilateral or multilateral dialogue to promote the benefits for the Chinese people of a moratorium or reduction in the use of the death penalty, if not complete abolition at this point. Speaking up to protect the lives of Falun Gong practitioners, calling to account those responsible in China and supporting an end to the persecution will help lay a foundation for a change in people's attitudes to state-sanctioned killing in China.

CHAIR: My first question first relates to your suggestion about engagement with civil society. Can you make suggestions as to who you believe we should be working with, given that there may be repercussions for people in China if they were to be seen to be engaging in issues of this sort, potentially, abroad?

Mr Deller : Our understanding of that is not specific. There is potential obviously for lawyers—whether or not it is connected to the bilateral dialogues; Australian lawyers for human rights. There are several lawyers groups in Australia that advocate for human rights.

CHAIR: I was thinking about the lawyers groups in China.

Mr Deller : I think—

CHAIR: There is a Chinese civil law advocacy group?

Mr Deller : Yes.

CHAIR: I have not heard of them, but—

Mr Deller : I have. Let's hope there is one.

CHAIR: Is there?

Mr Deller : I do not know specifically, but there are—

CHAIR: I am really asking you whether you believe there are groups in civil society in China that we could liaise with.

Mr Deller : Yes, there are.

CHAIR: Who are they?

Mr Deller : Most of them get arrested when they speak up about various issues. There are some who have come out of China and also are a conduit to lawyers still engaging in human rights practices in China. We are not specifically in contact with groups of lawyers, but they can be identified.

Dr Zhao : Those human rights lawyers like Gao Zhisheng, who was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, and a group of other human rights lawyers are very actively working to help persecuted minority groups in China, which include the Falun Gong, Christians, Tibetans, Muslims or other groups who are really underrepresented or even not allowed any legal representation.

CHAIR: I do not mean to be mischievous—I usually am!—but it sounds to me like you are suggesting the groups who are often described as the 'five evils'. I wonder who, in the broader civil society in China, you realistically believe the international community could engage with and would not be harmed through being involved in sensible discussions about these sorts of issues?

Dr Zhao : Do you mean 'would not be harmed' for those people who are in China?

CHAIR: I do not know. I might be leading a delegation to China, and I will probably meet with Madam Fu Ying, who, I think, heads up the foreign affairs committee of the people's congress. I will raise the issue with her; I have already done so. If I were to say to her, 'Would you like to identify a group of members of the people's congress who are working towards the abolition of the death penalty in China?' do you think she would be able to identify such a group?

Dr Zhao : I would doubt it, honestly speaking. I think probably any individual groups in China would be able to speak to foreign representatives like you or other groups from outside China. They would have to take a risk, but there are people who have the courage to do that. When we refer to the China civil society, we are not excluding communicating with the government, including any government body or different levels of government. The way we see it is engaging with the government in a closed-door dialogue may not be the only way or the best way. What we feel is more effective and has an impact for the Chinese people and the situation in China is actually open talk that can be known by the media and public so that people—the media and public—know what has been discussed and what the concern of the international community is.

CHAIR: Do you think that would be published in the Chinese free press, do you?

Dr Zhao : It may not be published by the media inside China, but it would be published by the Chinese and Western media outside China, which Chinese people can still access, probably through some software that has to overcome the internet blockage. But there is such software available for millions of Chinese people to use and through which they can actually hear this public voice and realise that there are concerns in the international community about the death penalty and also different human rights situations in China.

CHAIR: I am aware of and have, from time to time, participated in bilateral human rights dialogues involving countries in the region, including China, Laos and Vietnam, and these issues are raised. Obviously, what you are saying is you believe that, if they were raised more publicly, they may be able to achieve a better outcome. That is what you are arguing. I wonder whether you have any evidence to suggest that that might be the case or whether it is just an assertion, and you would perhaps like to see more vigorous criticism of China?

Dr Zhao : For our group, our focus is not on trying to make China look bad or lose face. What we care more about is how to really improve China's human rights situation in order to save people's lives with regard to the death penalty. I do not have a lot of examples but one specific example I can think of is a Canadian case. The person was a Canadian resident and her mum was arrested in China because of Falun Gong. When a Canadian delegation visited China, they publicly raised their concerns about the Canadian residents situation in China with the Chinese delegation they met. After that visit, when the delegation returned to Canada, they provided feedback to the Canadian resident that they had expressed their concerns to the Chinese government about her mother's situation and their hope that she would be free soon. Shortly after that visit, the Canadian resident's mum was released from detention. Of course the detention was not really through a sentence or a court trial. If any further information is needed, we are happy to prepare that and make a submission after the hearing today. There are numerous cases like that that we are aware of.

CHAIR: You mentioned in your evidence that there were 3,500 documented cases. In relation to the 3,500, I want to ask you, over what period? And how is the data collected and verified?

Mr Deller : It started after the persecution when those incidences became known inside and outside of China. The data was collected over a 15-year period. It is evidence that is compiled in a form where it can be verified—that is, where the person died, their family situation, what happened to them and which labour camp et cetera. That is documented on the Minghui and the Falun Dafa information websites. In terms of the process, do you have anything to add?

Dr Zhao : You can imagine the difficulties in collecting a lot of information from China.

CHAIR: That is why I am asking you the question.

Dr Zhao : Yes.

CHAIR: I assert 3,500—I did not know it was over a 15-year period—and somebody will say, 'It is untrue.' I know that in relation to the use of the death penalty in China that information is not published. I am looking to you to tell me how I can look at the information you have collected as being reliable and not just as a manufactured list so that you can belt up on the Chinese government whom you disagree with.

Dr Zhao : Sure. That is a valid point. Basically, these cases are collected through family members, friends and contacts. Some are based in China and some are based outside of China. These Falun Gong practitioners were arrested and detained or sent to brainwashing centres or mental hospitals. After a short period of time, we are talking about just a few weeks or a couple of months, they were dead—often they come back with bruises over their bodies. Of course the explanation from the prison is that these people committed suicide or they suddenly died of a heart attack. But how can the family really believe that someone, who has been healthy and strong and who is only in their 20s, 30s or 40s, after only a short period of detention, has suddenly died or committed suicide. We have Australian residents and citizens with family members who have been persecuted and died in jail.

CHAIR: Is the data that you collect and publish sometimes contested by China? Do they pick it up and try to answer? Do they have a website that deals with it? You have said that sometimes explanations are made that somebody in fact died of a heart attack or that they committed suicide. That suggests that there is some systematic way in which these allegations are addressed?

Ms Dobson : I will give you a brief definition of the website, which John and Lucy have been referring to. Regarding methodology, the data is collected through independent researchers who have described numerous single witness accounts from formerly detained Falun Gong practitioners. This type of study considers a collective body of evidence as reported by camp survivors. A large, convenient sample was accessed through Minghui, a non-profit volunteer organisation that has, on a daily basis since 1999, reported independent firsthand victim accounts and news about the Falun Gong community. Falun Gong practitioners use the website to share stories of their experiences of persecution, including reports about their time in detention in Chinese labour camps. The website is accessible in multiple languages via the website outside China. Using the website search functionality the researchers used one or multiple key words in Chinese language and recorded the total search result. We can submit further details of this in relation to organ harvesting and how we have managed to collect data, but this is very much related to the data and the report that we have submitted.

Dr Zhao : There is a witness living in Australia right now. They went through torture and persecution themselves. There were also inmates—the other Falun Gong practitioners detained in the same detention centres or prisons—that were killed in detention. If you need it, we can provide information and witnesses.

Senator McEWEN: Referring to your submission, you talk about recent changes to the death penalty system in China, labelled the 'kill fewer, kill carefully' laws, which you say may indicate a change of attitude. Can you elaborate on that. Where did you get that information from?

Mr Deller : It is readily available. It was 2006-07 when the Chinese supreme court made these changes to try to reduce the scope of what was captured under the death penalty. It seems to be a good initiative—to not be subject to the death penalty for minor theft or something. The problem is that the campaigns that the Communist Party run override any of those laws set by the supreme court. I do not know if you are familiar with the Chinese court system. There is a very good article and exploration of that by Clive Ansley. He is a Canadian lawyer who worked in China and taught law in China. He wrote a very nice article saying a Chinese court is not a court, because the Communist Party can decide the outcome of the case. So, yes, it is a good initiative to reduce the scope of the death penalty, but there is that sort of proviso from China researchers who look into that area: any campaign by the CCP can override those provisions.

Senator McEWEN: Do you know what caused the supreme court of China to have a less aggressive approach to implementation of the death penalty? What caused their change?

Mr Deller : Basically, from what I have read on that area, as the middle-class rises in China they expect some improvement in the type of law that they are subject to. The Chinese people are intelligent and are just suffering under a particular system, but they can see that it is not appropriate to be killed for, as I said, minor theft or other small things. I cannot remember the statistics, but there was a very broad range of offences which could be subject to the death penalty. So, in a sense, they are rationalising those, and you would say that 2006-07 is a bit late, given the interaction with the world community around the law changes and joining world trade organisations and those sorts of things. It seems to be an internal push from the growing middle-class for some rationalisation of the death penalty, and perhaps external pressure from interacting with world society.

Senator McEWEN: Do you know how justices are appointed to the court in China? Surely they would be put there by the party?

Mr Deller : I do not have the details on that.

Ms Dobson : Do you mean the judge?

Senator McEWEN: Yes.

Ms Dobson : They are not necessarily legally qualified or trained lawyers, if that is what you are asking us to clarify.

Senator McEWEN: I am wondering how they get appointed to the court. I assume the Communist Party of China would appoint them to the court.

Mr Deller : Absolutely. They can veto—

Ms Dobson : It is controlled by the state.

Senator McEWEN: So why would they appoint judges who are increasingly anti-death penalty?

Mr Deller : I do not believe they are anti-death penalty. I think that direction that the Supreme Court has adopted—

Senator McEWEN: A restriction of the offences.

Mr Deller : Yes. Also, a part of the issue is—and Mr Ruddock may know more, coming from a lawyer's background—a lot of the death penalty cases were being administered in provincial towns, where the officials are not trained in the law. The public start to see that as pretty serious when their friends are being subject to the death penalty and killed for minor occurrences in a town. So I think that was part of the rationalisation—to try to bring it under the guidance or the oversight of the Supreme Court in the hope that that could be rationalised. Hence, that is a name put on it—kill fewer, kill carefully.

CHAIR: From my own view—and I do not regard the Chinese system as being a model—it seems to me there is a degree of evolution that is, in fact, occurring, particularly with increased economic engagement. They now have interests, that are often competitive, that they have to find ways of resolving themselves, particularly over intellectual property, for instance. If you want to get international investment, sometimes you have to be able to provide a more secure environment for those people who will invest. I am not suggesting that the system is sound or that there are not issues. I am privy to some issues, having had to deal with these issues over a period of time when I was a minister. But it does not mean that we are not seeing some change. You, Dr Zhao, are ethnic Chinese. I am saying to myself, 'I am not ethnic Chinese.' What is likely to produce change? We are external; they are the government. But sometimes people are influenced by the way in which issues are raised and dealt with. I am really trying to seek through you as to whether there is a way forward in which we can improve the outcomes, or whether you particularly just want to see a more adversarial approach because you have some fundamental disagreements with them?

Dr Zhao : That is a very interesting question. I would not say that I know the best answer, to be honest. It is not necessarily that we fundamentally disagree with most of the other approaches that have been taken. We just feel there is still room to improve and to make a better outcome. The reason we suggest to raise the issue publicly or to make it known by public and online media is that is probably the only way that people in China and the majority of civil society will know about it and know that there is international pressure and international concern about it. Otherwise, the media in China is state run and state owned, so none of the issues would be covered. Without this kind of publicity, people in China would not know. Then they would not then put pressure on the government to change that. That is probably an educational process. As a Chinese person who grew up in China, a lot of things I learnt inside China and outside China are different. For example, when I was in China we were told—especially during the Cultural Revolution—that Confucius teaching was actually seen as a poison or a No. 1 enemy. Also, we were told that traditional Chinese culture was superstitious and outdated compared to Western culture.

When I was in China I did not see human life as being so precious. It was only after I went outside China that I started to see a different picture of China and Chinese culture. I started to see the impact of Confucian teaching on the Chinese people and the wider community, and I started to see the contribution of the traditional Chinese culture. I also started to see what a free society would look like, how people can be respected and how their life is precious in a free society. In China you do not really get that feeling. So I think to really encourage China or the Chinese people to abolish the death penalty, or even other ways of killing—this kind of education process—is important.

CHAIR: With the new mediums like mobile phones, there is a lot more widespread contact. It is not reading newspapers or anything of that nature; it is just what people pick up on the internet and so on. Is that making a difference, do you find, in terms of your dealings with people back in China?

Dr Zhao : That certainly will change. I think the law change that John mentioned about the attitude to the death penalty is probably the result of many elements: the pressure from inside and outside China—all of this advocacy. Also, the technology and information communication process, the internet or mobile phones—all these devices help. There is also the software that people developed to help the people inside China break through the blocking of the internet so that they can have access to the websites outside China. You cannot really even access the BBC and CNN, a Falun Dafa website or the Epoch Times website in China. All of these websites are not accessible in China. But with more and more information technologies people will get more freedom of information. So they will start to see a different picture of the world and also of the situation in China. I think they can start to see a possibility of a different future and a different path for China. They can start to see a hope that their own life and other people's lives can be better protected.

CHAIR: Thank you.

Senator McEWEN: As we all know, there are nearly 100,000 overseas Chinese students studying in Australia. Is there an opportunity for Australia to engage those mainly young people about these issues, and how can they take that advocacy forward into China when they return?

Dr Zhao : I think that is a good question. Again, it is not just those Chinese students. Look at how many Chinese residents there are in Australia.

Senator McEWEN: Tourists.

Dr Zhao : Not just tourists; the Chinese Australians living here. They actually interact a lot with their families and friends in China, so they certainly will bring a lot of information from Australia and other countries back to China as well. I think that the publicity and advocacy, even in Australia, about our concerns about the situation in China will certainly have an impact as well, because they are all live media. They talk frequently with people in China. They frequently visit China. All this information can be brought back as well, so I think that that definitely is another channel.

Ms Dobson : Mr Ruddock, Senator McEwen, I would like to refer you to a particular graph in relation to the comments that have been raised. I would like to refer to page 4 and, in particular, the question about death row numbers declining. That may indeed be the case. However, research has shown—I will just pause a moment while you reach page 4. You will see the two graphs there. This report will give you some background—it is also well-sourced—regarding the increase in transplant demand for organs. You can see in the graph at the bottom, as the death row numbers decline, there is, indeed, a spike in the transplant numbers.

I just want to tie in the topics that have come up now. Absolutely Australia is in a primary position to have a qualitative discussion with Chinese authorities, medical doctors and law authorities. Someone like me, if I can tap into being ethnic Chinese and born and bred in Australia—I am very grateful that I have had a Western education, and as I have aged I have been exposed to my Chinese culture. I am not so dissimilar to you, in many ways, with all respect—brought up in the West and trying to engage with China, the language, the culture. One of the three key issues I want to draw your attention to is that, from what we understand, the former deputy health minister, Huang Jiefu, is saying that those on death row are being encouraged to donate their organs, for example. This is a direct contradiction of ethical medical conventions all around the world from the WHO to the WMA to the Transplantation Society. This type of education and exchange that can occur from the Australian side could be very valuable, because, anywhere in the West, this is not on.

Secondly, what has also been an issue is prisoners of conscience. If they are being put to death, this, again, contravenes human rights laws around the world. From what this research indicates, the key source are Falun Gong practitioners—value of life and then being political prisoners. We are talking about a lot of lives that are very relevant to the current conversation. The third thing, which I think is the most important point, in relation to how precious life is, is that the authorities in the West appear to have been informed that organ harvesting either (a) is on the decline or (b) has stopped. This is based only on a statement, and there have not been any facts or figures or any transparency in order for a concrete conclusion to be drawn. So, again, I would just like to highlight these three points for your consideration.

Mr LAURIE FERGUSON: Obviously the lack of transparency by the Chinese authorities and the very strong crackdown over the past three or four years on civil society means that they have a big credibility problem. But do you have information on the wider use of capital punishment in China beyond these kinds of campaigns against corruption in the government? What would be the other main areas where it is actually utilised, from what you understand? Or do you have knowledge of capital punishment in China? It is large series of offences, but—

Mr Deller : As I think you all know, in China you do not need to sentence anyone in a court to get rid of them. That is the power of the communist party. They say they have been closing detention centres under Xi Jinping, and it seems that they have. But Falun Gong practitioners have been taken out of one form of detention and put into other forms of detention—black jails. Referenced in our submission was the Amnesty International report from December 2013—Changing the soup but not the medicine?Actually, that is quite a good investigation that they have done with Falun Gong practitioners who have been detained and subject to torture et cetera. It is one of the better documents from Amnesty.

Mr LAURIE FERGUSON: Sorry—I am not trying to diminish the Falun Gong issue, and you might not have knowledge in this field, but I am just wondering: in a broader sense, do you know, beyond these various show trials for corruption et cetera, other major uses of capital punishment besides with Falun Gong at the moment in China? Do you have knowledge of what areas it is mainly utilised for?

Dr Zhao : The official sentence is used mainly for serious crime, like murder, rape or big robberies, and also corruption. If you have a certain amount of corruption or bribery you might be sentenced to the death penalty. But there has been a change. During some period of time—after 1949 and up to about the 1980s—it was a less civilised approach. During that period, even the head of the village or the town had the power to sentence someone to death. They did not even need a trial. The landlord, or maybe a spy working for the KMT, could just take people out and shoot them. That happened during the Cultural Revolution as well. If someone was seen as an enemy, spy or traitor, a group of those activists just took them out and beat them to death. There was no consequence. After these campaigns finished—after the 1980s—it was done in a more civilised way. For serious crime it would go through the court.

Mr LAURIE FERGUSON: It would be predictable, would it? As you said, it would be murder, rape, high embezzlement—there are no other offences that attract capital punishment that we might be surprised about.

Dr Zhao : If we look at the official sentence then that would be those serious crimes, but we are talking about the other form—what happened to dissidents like Falun Gong and other groups. And of course they can be killed without any trial or sentence. There is no official record or evidence or proof.

Mr LAURIE FERGUSON: That is what I am saying. The Chinese have no credibility on this; I know that. It sounds like there is nothing out of left field that we would not be surprised about.

Dr Zhao : There is one point I can add regarding advocacy to China or the Chinese government. Inside China the government attitude has also had a lot of change in recent years after the new leader, Xi Jinping, came into power—not just the anti-corruption campaigns but the attitudes towards Falun Gong and many other issues. It was quite different from that of previous leaders. So I think for governments outside China or groups that want to advocate for more freedoms in China or to abolish the death penalty should feel more confident about advocating. You would probably be surprised to find that the government is more open to listening at the moment.

CHAIR: Well, I am testing it, and I did so, as I said, with Madam Fu Ying when she was here in Australia.

Thank you for your attendance today. It was very good of you to come. If you have been asked to provide additional material or there is further information you would like to provide, please send it to our secretariat. You will be sent a copy of the transcript of your evidence, to which you may suggest corrections. You know that it has been public evidence, and it may come to the attention of others. We will see what they say.

Before I close the hearing, the subcommittee has received, as an exhibit to the inquiry into Australia's advocacy for abolition of the death penalty, the documents presented by Amnesty titled Urgent Action documents, Flawed justice and World Day against the death penalty 2015 and the documents presented to us by Falun Dafa titled Implausible medical examinations of Falun Gong forced labor camp workers in China. Perhaps a member will move that the documents be received by the subcommittee.

Senator McEWEN: It is so moved.

CHAIR: Thank you—carried.

Resolved that these proceedings be published.

Subc ommittee adjourned at 13 : 28