Thursday, November 02, 2006
By DAVID LAGUE
Published: November 1, 2006
BEIJING, Oct. 31 — Responding to domestic and international criticism of its extensive use of capital punishment, China adopted new rules on Tuesday requiring review of all death sentences by the Supreme People’s Court, state news media reported.
The move, which goes into effect on Jan. 1, restores a power that was stripped from the Supreme Court in 1983 and given to provincial courts as part of a major crackdown on crime. The authorities are facing mounting criticism from human rights groups and Chinese legal scholars for what they say is the widespread and arbitrary use of the death penalty.
China executes more people every year than all other nations combined, by some Chinese estimates, up to 10,000 a year. Chinese courts have been embarrassed in recent years by a number of executions of people who were later proved innocent.
China’s legislature, the National People’s Congress, approved the amendment to the law, which "is believed to be the most important reform of capital punishment in China in more than two decades," the official New China News Agency said in a brief report.
The state news media have estimated that the number of executions could drop by as much as 30 percent under the new system, though they have not said how they arrived at that figure.
Human rights groups welcomed the change, saying it was likely to lead to fewer executions, but they urged the authorities to take further action. "I think this is a positive step, but it falls well short of what is needed," said Nicholas Bequelin, a researcher for Human Rights Watch who is based in Hong Kong.
Chinese political leaders strongly defend capital punishment as an essential tool to fight crime and preserve social order in a country of 1.3 billion that is undergoing wrenching economic and social changes. The authorities also argue that the death penalty is an important deterrent to official corruption, which has emerged as a major threat to the reputation of the governing Communist Party.
However, legal experts say that as living standards rise and China becomes an important international power, the country’s senior leadership is uncomfortable that the death penalty is so readily applied.
They say the reform can also be seen as part of President Hu Jintao’s commitment to "build a harmonious society," which covers a range of social concerns, including pollution, growing inequality and access to education and health care. The public has long chafed under a legal system that is widely perceived as favoring the wealthy and politically connected.
China does not disclose the number of executions it carries out under the criminal code, where almost 70 offenses carry the death penalty.
Citing publicly available reports, Amnesty International estimates that at least 1,770 people were executed in 2005 — more than 80 percent of the world’s total — and 3,900 were sentenced to death. In 2004, Amnesty said, 3,400 were executed in China out of 3,797 it documented in the world that year.
Local courts had been given the power to impose the death penalty by Deng Xiaoping, who was angry about a wave of crime and corruption that threatened his economic reform program, which was still in its infancy. From the early 1980s until now, they have operated with virtually no oversight, a situation that has led to the widespread and, legal experts say, indiscriminate use of capital punishment.
In a report on Sept. 21, Amnesty said shortcomings in the legal system for people sentenced to death included a lack of prompt access to lawyers, the absence of the presumption of innocence, political interference in the courts and the use of evidence obtained by torture.
"No one who is sentenced to death in China receives a fair trial in line with international human rights standards," Amnesty said in the report.
The Chinese authorities have already recruited 200 judges for the top court and opened new courtrooms to handle the extra work arising from the change, according to the Chinese news reports.
Some Chinese legal scholars say lower courts will now have to be more careful in imposing the death penalty, handing down more long prison terms instead to avoid the scrutiny of the high court.
Human rights groups and supporters of legal change in China are now urging the government to introduce more sweeping changes, including the establishment of an independent judiciary.
"So far, the leadership is not willing to take on real reform," Mr. Bequelin said.
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