By Rick Dewsbury
Facing death with a smile: Dai Donggui tries on an outfit for her to wear before her execution. Right, a female police officer feeds a lychee to condemned drug dealer Dai Donggu the evening before the execution
A young woman sits cross-legged on the ground laughing playfully as she is fed a lychee. Another plays cards in pair of baggy pink pyjamas.
The moving images could show any group of young women as they go about their daily lives in prison.
But just hours - and in some cases minutes - after the pictures were taken, each of the four women were led into a concrete yard and executed.
Last wishes: At 10:15pm the evening before her execution, an inmate records condemned drug trafficker Li Juhua's last will and testament
Preparations: Ms Donggui, in handcuffs and ankle shackles, neatly folds her red clothes onto the mattress she'll sleep on before she's shot in the morning
Her last meal: Ms Donggui picks up a bowl of green bean soup on a red stool, that also has McDonalds fries, a burger and ice cream on
The previously unseen photographs have emerged for the first time in nearly a decade - and give an incredibly rare glimpse into final moments of Chinese prisoners on death row.
Communist officials are notoriously guarded about the death penalty, in a country that carries out more executions than any other.
But in an unprecedented move, an unnamed civilian photographer was allowed inside No 1 Detention Centre for women in the industrial city of Wuhan, in central China. The man took a series of pictures on June 24, 2003.
But so sensitive were the photographs, that the authorities banned them from being published. The Government feared they would evoke sympathy for the female prisoners.
Lively: He Xiuling, the youngest of the female death row inmates, is excited and exaggerated. Right, another female prisoner feeds Ms Xiuling dumplings for a late-night snack
A fragment of dignity: Ms Xiuling smiles as she squeezes into the new shoes she will wear for the execution
A last moment of joy: Ms Xiuling sits with prison guards and inmates the night before her execution, revealing her natural lively side as she rests her head against another woman
Passing time: Ms Xiuling and Ma Qingxiu, both sentenced to die, play cards with other inmates as guards look on. The group appear relaxed and upbeat
Until now they had remained unseen. However, last week the pictures were published for the first time on Phoenix TV, a broadcaster in Hong Kong.
The photographer was granted access to Ma Qingxiu, Li Juhua, Dai Donggui and He Xiuling from 9pm until 7.21 am the next morning. The women had all been convicted of drug trafficking and sentenced to death.
Ms Donggui is shown carefully folding her red prison clothes on the floor. She smiles as she displays off a red top to the photographer, choosing what her last outfit will be.
No use for these anymore: At 6.07 am , the morning of the execution, Ms Qingxiu (third from right) instructs that her clothes be given to an ordinary inmate who needs clothes
Choosing execution outfit: Ms Xiuling tries on a black top, as she felt the white top made her look fat. Another death row inmate looks on, her feet in shackles
Crouching on her mattress, with her hands and feet shackled, she holds a bowl of green bean soup. In the corner of a room is a red bowl used for washing and a McDonald's meal given to prisoners.
Moments later a guard appears and feeds her a lychee before she's escorted the next morning to the execution grounds. As she prepares to be taken away, Ms Donggui applies red nail polish with the help of prison guards.
In another scene, Ms Juhua sits in her cell as a fellow convict records her last will and testament.
Just yards away Ms Xiuling and Ms Qingxiu laugh as they play cards with inmates. The cameraman remembers Ms Xiuling as being 'excited and exaggerated' during the evening.
The chubby 25-year-old prisoner, who had been caught carrying 7,000 grams illegal drugs, was the liveliest of the inmates, gently resting her head on another women's leg as she smiles.
A painful walk: At 7am in the morning, the convicts are walked into the execution ground to face their death as the guards watch them
Paraded as an example: Ms Xiuling is at the front of the line as 16 other convicts are walked in front of members of the public to the execution ground
Hurt: Minutes before she is shot in the back of the head, Ms Xiuling breaks down in tears. She was the only one of the prisoners to cry on the morning of the execution
She was worried about appearing 'too fat' in her pyjamas, and one of the inmates found her a black top to change into. Another image shows her squeezing into a new pair of shoes.
But throughout the evening she was restless, and began preying to the heavens to be allowed another chance at life.
At 6am, Ms Qingxiu, 49, hands over her old clothes to another inmate who will need them. She moves to a temporary cell and joins Ms Xiuling, who is dabbing tears from her eyes.
The final few photographs show the inmates walking into the execution ground. Some of them have their legs shackled as they join 16 other death row inmates.
Ms Xiuling is held by a guard, but she can't stop herself from crying as her life draws to a close. The women are taken away by guards and minutes later shot in the back of the head.
Monday, December 5, 2011
By Rick Dewsbury