China changes law to limit death sentence

Updated: 2006-10-31 18:30

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 People's Court.

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 (SPC).

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 convictions."

"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 and bombing.

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 previous year.

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 punishment.

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.

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