Globe and Mail: China's prisons used as organ-donor factories, Ambulances stand by as inmates are killed by gunfire so tissue for transplants can be removed while fresh

By Jan Wong
23 May 1994

The sentence is perplexing. The prisoner is condemned to death and "stripped of political rights for life."

If one is dead, what rights remain?

Apparently, the right of control over one's body.

What few Chinese - and even fewer foreigners - know is that authorities routinely use the organs of executed prisoners for transplant operations.

"If you strip them of political rights, then they have no recourse. You can't talk about mistreating the corpse," said a former supreme court employee who has witnessed more than 100 executions.

Organ removal from prisoners is a taboo subject in China.

"The use of the corpses or organs of executed criminals must be kept strictly secret," said a 1984 document issued by the ministries of justice, health and public security and obtained by the U.S.-based human-rights group Asia Watch.

The penchant for secrecy is so strong that internal regulations require unmarked ambulances and forbid medical personnel from wearing white at executions.

Nor can the organs of formerly "high-ranking officials and famous people" be used, or those of "important political prisoners," according to an article in The Nineties Monthly, a Hong Kong magazine that cited an unidentified police source in the province of Zhejiang.

Ambulances stand by

A surgeon in Beijing confirmed that China performs thousands of kidney transplants a year, often for important officials. But when asked whether prisoners might be the source of organs, he grew wary. "Don't even touch that," he warned.

In fact, "the hospitals and courts coordinate the time for the execution," said a government official who has witnessed several executions.

The official newspaper Legal Daily also confirmed this practice in an article in July 1989. "Since, in China, there are relatively few donors of human organs, some medical units and people's courts get together and use . . . organs of executed prisoners without obtaining the agreement of prisoners' families," the Legal Daily said.

"By so doing, they can obtain relatively healthy human organs and they do not need to spend money. This method is incorrect from a legal point of view."

Witnesses and participants say medical personnel and an unmarked ambulance wait on the perimeter of the execution ground if the prisoner's organs are going to be used.

After the execution, usually with a gun fired at point-blank range into the back of the neck, the doctors go to work. Because organs deteriorate rapidly when blood stops circulating, the doctors may whisk the body to a nearby hospital. Or they may hook up the brain-dead person to a mechanical ventilator in the ambulance to keep the organs fresh.

Organs removed on the spot

Security is tight.

"When genuinely necessary . . . a surgical vehicle from the health department may be permitted to drive onto the execution grounds to remove the organs, but it is not permitted to use a vehicle bearing health department insignia or (for personnel) to wear white clothing. Guards must remain posted around the execution grounds while the operation for organ removal is going on," the 1984 document said.

One government official, who has witnessed 32 executions, said he saw organs being removed on several occasions. In one case, the corpse was taken into the ambulance for about 40 minutes. Then a gray body bag was tossed into a truck. The truck left for the crematorium, he said, and the ambulance drove off in another direction.

Several top officials also confirmed the practice.

Jin Yongjian, China's ambassador to the United Nations, told the U.N. Committee Against Torture in April 1993 that organs of executed prisoners are used "in rare instances" and "with the consent of the individual."
Xiao Yang, the governor of Sichuan province, home to one in every 10 Chinese, also confirmed the practice. "We do this, but only when the family gives permission," he said.

In fact, neither the family nor the prisoner is told in many cases, according to the human-rights group Amnesty International. The prisoner has no right to see his family before death. Nor are letters written by death-row prisoners passed on to their families, according to a 1984 directive.

Nothing left but ashes

Although many places in China have no cremation facilities, any city with hospitals sophisticated enough to perform transplants generally also has a crematorium. So if organs are removed, the family may only get back the ashes.

"The family can never see the corpse. They've lost that right, too," said a government official familiar with execution practices.

Amnesty International says executed prisoners account for 90% of transplant organs.

"After all, some of the criminals are quite young and in good health, and their organs are quite good and fresh," said a Chinese lawyer and legal scholar.

Huge demand for organs, a dearth of supply and financial incentives could combine to pressure authorities into handing down a death sentence when they might otherwise have meted out a long prison term, human-rights groups say.

And with the push to a market-driven economy, organ transplants have become a lucrative business. Hospitals that need organs in turn kick back money to cooperating prisons.

"Each time there's an execution planned, the prison calls the hospitals. The hospitals pay a fee for the organ," said Wei Jingsheng, a prominent dissident who spent nearly 15 years in prison, including eight months on death row.

Wei was interviewed before his recent arrest on unspecified charges.

The way the prisoner is executed may take into account the subsequent use of organs. In nine liver transplant cases discussed in the China Journal of Organ Transplantation, the livers all came from "people who had died from severe, open-style cranial injury," according to the article obtained by Asia Watch.

A soldier who killed his company commander was executed with a shot in the neck so that some organs could be removed.

"If they want the eyes (corneas), they shoot in the body," said an official who witnessed the execution. "If they want the heart, they shoot in the head."

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Photo; Caption: A passer-by reads an execution notice outside the Beijing People's High Court in this file photo. A red check mark at the bottom of the notice indicates the death sentence has been carried out. A bullet to the head is the usual means. By Associated Press.

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