Fewer executions after legal reform

By Xie Chuanjiao (China Daily)
Updated: 2007-06-08 06:45

The number of people executed has dropped in the first five months of the year after the Supreme People's Court recovered the right to review and approve all death sentences decided by local courts in the country.

Data from the Beijing No 1 and No 2 intermediate people's courts suggests the number of death sentences in first trials resulting in immediate execution dropped 10 percent year-on-year.

Ni Shouming, spokesman for the highest court, said the situation is similar across the country, but declined to give details.

He stressed that both the highest court and lower-level courts are now more careful when handing out the death penalty.

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"The lower courts have to be more prudent now. If a case is sent back for a retrial by the highest court, it not only means the first judgement is wrong, but also a matter of shame for the lower court," Ni told China Daily.

From 1981, the apex court began to grant provincial courts the authority to pronounce death sentences amid rising crime.

The practice, widely criticized in recent years - especially after reports of miscarriage of justice - came to an end on January 1 when the supreme court was given the sole power to review and ratify all death sentences.

Chen Weidong, an expert on criminal law with Renmin University of China, predicted the number of death sentences will drop 20 percent this year.

"Leniency and more judicious use of capital punishment is the trend of the time, a
Related comment:
With its life-and-death power, the Supreme Court has the obligation to make sure every death sentence it approves can stand the test of time. There is no remedy for execution.
concept in line with international practice," Chen said.

Earlier this year, Chief Justice Xiao Yang urged "extreme caution" in handing down death sentences, saying "capital punishment should be given only to an 'extremely small number' of serious offenders".

Those who plead guilty and provide important information; and those who are accomplices in a criminal case will receive lighter punishment, he said.

Ni said that killings triggered by disputes among family members and neighbors do not necessarily lead to capital punishment now if the victims' family is financially compensated.

He said the apex court would further reduce the use of death penalties for such cases as severe economic crimes that used to attract capital punishment.

Those involved in economic crimes would be given lighter punishment if they helped recoup losses caused to the State.

"But for extremely heinous cases with iron-clad evidence, the death penalty will still be passed down," he added.

Ni said the apex court had completed the first draft of a guideline on death penalty for four categories of crimes - murder, robbery, drug trafficking and intentional injury - which mostly resulted in the death penalty.

"The guideline will set a yardstick for all provinces and promote fairness," he said.

Chen Zexian, deputy director of the Institute of Law of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said although China will ultimately abolish the capital punishment, "it has to start from strict limits on the use of death penalties".

"It takes a long time for society to accept the abolition of the death penalty," Chen said.

Last year 889,042 people were convicted by courts at all levels across the country, and 153,724 received sentences of longer than five years. The figure includes life terms and executions.

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