Nie Shubin's conviction for rape and murder was overturned 21 years after his execution. Following years of campaigning by his family and lawyers, China's Supreme Court ruled the facts in his case were "unclear and the evidence insufficient".

The United Nations are agreed that in countries that have not abolished the death penalty those facing the risk of execution have the right to a number of safeguards. These are set out in the Economic and Social Council resolution 1984/50 of 25 May 1984. These safeguards include limiting the death penalty to the most serious crimes, the right to a fair trial, the right to appeal and commutation of the sentence, and no risk of a miscarriage of justice.

Article 14 of the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights sets out the minimum standards of a fair trial. Although several countries in Asia have still not ratified this convention, the rights in Article 14 to equality before the law, for a fair and independent court and protection for the accused are so widely accepted by the international community as to be considered customary law.

Many countries cannot guarantee the right to a fair trial. This is often because the accused has no access to an effective defence.

“Executions for drug crimes amount to a violation of international law and are unlawful killings.” This is the view of the United Nations Special Rapporteurs on summary executions and torture. Echoing other influential human rights experts, the Special Rapporteurs believe that drug-related offences do not meet the 'most serious' crime threshold. Many Asian countries, including those like China which regularly apply the death penalty, use capital punishment for drug-related crime.       

Unfair trials and the use of torture to secure confessions in death penalty cases place the accused at risk of a serious and irreversible miscarriage of justice. Our work is helping lawyers in China to draw on international law in their defence of persons facing the risk of execution.