China's top legislature adopted a change to the law on the country's court
system on Tuesday requiring all death sentences to be approved by the Supreme
The amendment to the country's organic law on the people's court will come
into effect on January 1, 2007. It is believed to be the most important reform
on capital punishment in China in more than 20 years.
The amendment deprives the provincial people's courts of the final say on
issuing death sentence, stipulating that death penalties handed out by
provincial courts must be reviewed and ratified by the Supreme People's Court
Xiao Yang, president of the Supreme People's Court, said the change will
separate a review of a death sentence from a convicted person's appeal of the
verdict. The former will be handled by the SPC while the later remains in the
jurisdiction of provincial courts.
This, says Xiao, is "an important procedural step to prevent wrongful
"It will also give the defendants in death sentence cases one more chance to
have their opinions heard," Xiao said.
The SPC was responsible for reviewing all death penalty cases until 1983
when, as part of a major crackdown on crime, provincial courts were given
authority to issue final verdicts on death sentences for crimes that seriously
endangered public security and social order, including homicide, rape, robbery
Chen Xianming, president of China University of Political Science and Law,
said the revision was appropriate in the mid 1980's and helped to lower the
country's crime rate.
Ministry of Public Security figures in September 1984 showed that the number
of criminal cases from January to August that year dropped 31 percent from the
However, the practice of provincial courts handling both death sentence
appeals and conducting final reviews began to encounter increasing criticism in
recent years for causing miscarriages of justice.
Since 2005, China's media have exposed a series of errors in death sentence
cases and criticized courts for their lack of caution in meting out capital
Law professor Chen Ruihua of the Peking University said the 1983 revision has
resulted in "insufficient supervision" of death sentences.
Chen said provincial courts may have different interpretations of which
crimes are worthy of capital punishment. This meant someone convicted in one
province may receive the death penalty while in another province the same crime
would have resulted in a prison sentence.
"To take back the power of reviewing and ratifying all death sentences and
prevent wrongful convictions has become an urgent issue for China to push
forward judicial reform, safeguard legal consistency and promote judicial
justice," said Chen.
Sources with the supreme court said the SPC had been considering depriving
provincial courts of the right to ratify death sentences since the late 1990s.
In October 2005, the SPC issued its Second Five-Year (2006-2010) Reform Plan,
announcing that it had decided to deprive provincial courts of this power
according to the principle of "respecting and protecting human rights and
exerting strict controls over the death penalty."
To prepare for the changes, the SPC has set up three new criminal tribunals
since April this year to review death sentences handed out by provincial courts.
Staff for the three tribunals, who underwent a month of training in Beijing,
are selected from regional courts by a rigorous examination process.
The SPC is working on a plan to take in more experienced lawyers and law
school teachers as senior judges.
Over 30 judges from higher and intermediary people's courts have been chosen
for the first training course in Beijing. After three months of training, they
will be on probation for a year before officially assuming office.
After a year of preparation, the SPC tabled the draft amendment to the top
legislature last September, asking lawmakers to revise the law to allow the
supreme court to take back the power.