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Posted July 16, 2007
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Bribes and Fraud - Capital Punishment

TO many Americans, the execution last week of China’s former top food and drug official after he confessed to taking bribes was an extreme reaction by the Beijing government to growing worries about the safety of Chinese exports.

After recalls of everything from toothpaste and tires to pet food and toy trains, China’s leaders decided to make an example of Zheng Xiaoyu, 62, whose punishment came just six weeks after he was found guilty. Indeed, Senator Charles Schumer of New York, a leading critic of China, called it a “surreal response.”

But several people died from the tainted products. And China is not alone in treating corruption as a capital offense.

For instance, Vietnam occasionally imposes the death penalty. In 2006, the government executed Phung Long That, a former anti-smuggling investigator in Ho Chi Minh City, for accepting bribes and helping to smuggle roughly $70 million worth of goods.

In fact, throughout history, bribery has often been thought of as a crime that could harm the state — thus worthy of extreme punishment. Severe sanctions for bribe-taking have a long and bloody history. Here are a few examples.

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STRIPPED OF CITIZENSHIP Plato said bribe-taking merits “disgrace” in his “Laws,” and in ancient Athens, corrupt officials faced the loss of their citizenship and the right to participate in the political institutions of the city-state.

Demosthenes, the great Athenian orator and political leader, was found guilty of accepting bribes in 324 B.C. and was fined 50 talents, equivalent to roughly $20 million in today’s dollars, says Michael Gagarin, a classics professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

Demosthenes, who then went into exile, was comparatively lucky. Other Athenian officials were executed for taking bribes. “Bribery was taken very seriously and certainly could lead to capital punishment,” Mr. Gagarin says.

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A POKE IN THE EYE In Byzantium in the 11th century, corrupt officials were blinded and castrated, according to Walter Kaegi, a history professor at the University of Chicago. Besides being blinded and flogged, bribe takers were deported and their assets confiscated. As for castration, Mr. Kaegi says, it tended not to be a statutory punishment but rather the “result of public outrage.”

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FIND RELIGION In Constantinople under Emperor Justinian, Mr. Kaegi says, John the Cappadocian, who supplied the emperor’s army with tainted food, was publicly flogged and then forced to become an Orthodox priest.

“That was a merciful punishment,” Mr. Kaegi adds.

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A FINE AND PAYING FOR MEALS Bribe-takers in early America didn’t have to worry about the pillory or whipping-post, classic punishments in Puritan New England. Instead, they faced a choice of jail or paying a fine. Most chose the latter, says David Konig, professor of history and law at Washington University in St. Louis. “Prison wasn’t any fun then,” says Mr. Konig. “And you had to pay for your own food.”

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THE LENIENT APPROACH Although the Twelve Tables, an early legal code in the Roman Republic, imposed the death penalty on judges who accepted bribes, enforcement grew lenient after the rise of the Roman Empire. Richard Saller, a history professor at Stanford, says Rome “had a real problem trying to define what qualified as a bribe and what was a friendship gift. There was a pretty broad range of quid pro quos.”

Emperor Tiberias sought to curb rapacious local governors from extorting tax payments from subjects but still left local officials plenty of room to obtain gratuities. Tiberias said he wanted his “sheep shorn, not flayed,” meaning that while citizens might have to keep paying, local rulers shouldn’t be excessively greedy when demanding payments.

Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company. Reprinted from The New York Times, Week in Review, of Sunday, July 15, 2007., the scholarly journal of democracy and human rights
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