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China Threatens to Execute People Caught Buying, Selling Rat Poison - 2003-10-02

In a move aimed at stopping a rising number of revenge killings, China is threatening to execute people caught buying and selling illegal rat poison.

A new set of penalties issued this week by China's high court and the chief prosecutor's office says those who make or sell a type of rat poison known as "dushuqiang" may face the death penalty.

The lethal substance has long been banned in China, but officials say it has been used in a number of revenge attacks over the past year. Scores of people have been killed and China's government enacted the measure to deal with these vendetta crimes.

A businessperson putting rat poison in the food products of a competitor is a common pattern. Another revenge attack used by retailers is blowing up their competitors' outlets.

One of the latest crimes involving dushuqiang happened last year in the eastern city of Nanjing. Thirty eight people - including several children -died after eating snacks that had been powdered with rat poison.

China's official news agency, Xinhua, on Thursday reported that under the new penalties, the minimum sentence for making or selling the substance would be three years in prison. Death sentences now apply in cases where attacks are fatal.

Chinese officials and some crime experts say the tough new measures are perhaps justified in cases where innocent people are killed.

Human rights activists outside China, however, disagree.

Frank Lu, a Hong Kong-based advocate with the Information Center for Human Rights and Democracy, has long been a critic of China's use of the death penalty - which he opposes in all situations. He says he does not believe executing rat poison traffickers will deter people from committing revenge crimes.

"Even if you stop making rat poison, they can still gather a lot of other chemicals, or materials to kill people," he said.

The penalties introduced this week also extend to the criminal use of other highly toxic chemicals.

China has for years executed those convicted of mass poisonings, but this is the first time the penalties have targeted those who make and sell illegal poisons.

Crime experts say that despite the rash of vendetta attacks, China's overall crime rate remains dramatically lower than that of most western industrialized nations.