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The Plight of Colombian Drug Inmates in Chinese Prisons

In light of a recent execution of an elderly Colombian man for drug trafficking in China, there has been renewed focus on the harsh treatment faced by Colombians in Chinese prisons.

On February 28, Ismael Enrique Arciniegas became the first Colombian to be executed in a Chinese prison. 74 year old Arciniegas, who was sentenced to death in 2010 after being found with 4 kilograms of cocaine, was executed by lethal injection, despite pleas for his life from the Colombian government and the Arciniegas family. In a blunt statement, Chinese government spokesman Liu Tao claimed that the execution of Arciniegas “has an educative value for all Colombian people” to dissuade them from drug trafficking.

China implements strict punitive measures for violations of its drug legislation, including the possibility of the death penalty for anyone found smuggling more than 50 grams of opium, heroin, or certain other drugs.

While Chinese drug policies are broadly perceived as repressive, reports suggest that Colombians, and other foreign prisoners, face particularly harsh treatment and discrimination within the judicial system.

In 2015, a series of letters by Colombian prisoners held in China were published online. Most of the letters were written by individuals who had been convicted of drug offences and sentenced to either life imprisonment or the death penalty, while most letters’ recipients were the detainees’ family members. In these letters, written in Spanish, the prisoners described harrowing scenes of unhygienic conditions, a lack of access to basic amenities, and discriminatory treatment when compared to that of Chinese prisoners.

One man, writing to his brother, claimed that the poor hygiene in the prison caused him to fall ill, and that he endured agony during medical procedures; “they performed two operations, and let me tell you that they did not even use anesthesia, that was horrible, you cannot even imagine the pain it gave me”. “I was really sick”, he added, “and I went to sleep in the cell with up to 25 other people”.

Others lamented the crowded conditions in which they were held, compared to Chinese detainees; “[there were] 12 people per cell sharing a toilet, whereas the Chinese prisoners live only five per cell”.

In one letter, seven Colombian prisoners being held at Shanghai’s Qingpu Prison claimed that, alongside physical discomfort, their legal rights were being violated. They described how many of them had had to wait up to 32 months to appeal for a reduction in their sentence from life to 21 years, while Chinese inmates – they claim – were “automatically granted” such eligibility after 24 months.

In the letters, several Colombians described coming from impoverished backgrounds, and becoming involved with the drug trade in the hopes of earning a living for their family. “I always dreamed of […] helping with whatever was needed as much as I could”, one man described as his reason for entering the illegal drug trade, “instead it turned into a nightmare”.

Colombian prisoners’ financial plight is being compounded by the Chinese prison system, which forces inmates to finance many of their own day-to-day costs while incarcerated. To apply for the aforementioned sentence reduction, a prisoner must pay a fee, which some Colombian inmates report being between “50 per cent and 100 per cent of [their usual] annual expenses”. This cost has proved unobtainable for many Colombian prisoners, as they spend the small amount of money they have on purchasing toiletries and clothing, as well as food – “due to the poor quality of the food provided”. Additionally, when calling their families, the Colombian inmates claimed to pay five times more than Chinese prisoners due to international calling rates.

“They [the prison guards] are the demon, they don’t have a heart, you can’t imagine the torture they put us through […] I was chained from my feet for five months, that was really hard for me, I felt kidnapped.”

“What I want is to go to real jail like it should be […] take me out of this torture centre as fast as you can before I go crazy”

“We are like zombies around here, we live but we don’t exist”

The execution of Arciniegas in February undoubtedly induced further fear among the estimated 56 Colombians currently imprisoned in China, particularly the 15 who are currently on death row.

Although China’s true statistics on the death penalty are a state secret, there are estimated to be over 1,000 executions in the country every year. An April 2017 report by Amnesty International described how "drug cases are one of the major categories of crimes that receive death sentences in [China]".

There have, however, been some cases that offer a glimmer of hope to Colombian inmates languishing in Chinese prisons. Harold Carrillo Sánchez, who had been sentenced to death for drug trafficking, and Sara María Galeano Trejos, who had received a life sentence, were repatriated to Colombia from China in 2015 and 2016 respectively for humanitarian reasons relating to their ill health.

One day prior to Arciniegas’ execution, the Colombian Ministry of Foreign Affairs published a statement that “the Colombian state recognises the right of countries to establish and enforce their legislation in criminal matters, but we categorically reiterate our position against the death penalty, and reaffirm the inviolable right to life”.

Unfortunately for the Colombians suffering in dangerous and unsanitary conditions on death row, as well as all other drug trafficking inmates in Chinese prisons, it is unlikely that such criticism will influence the state’s approach. The Chinese government appears to be continuing in a steadfast manner to implement its repressive drug war.

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