The number of suspended death sentences handed down this year in China surpassed that of immediate executions for the first time, reflecting the policy of "applying the death penalty to only a small number of extremely serious offenders", the Chief Justice Xiao Yang said on Friday.
Xiao attributed the shift towards what he called a more prudent use of the death penalty to the supreme court's resumption of the right to review all death penalty decisions made by lower courts.
That right resumed on January 1, 2007, ending the court's 26-year absence in approving many of China's execution verdicts.
"Generally, this significant reform has registered smooth progress in the transitional period," said Xiao, president of the Supreme People's Court (SPC), at a national work conference on judicial reform. He did not provide any statistics concerning death sentences.
He said the reform ensured that "all defendants were equal before the law" and unified the "judicial scale" in applying death sentences.
"It also strengthens the protection of human rights in the judicial field," Xiao said, adding "those who could be absolved will not be given any capital punishment and those who need not be executed immediately will not get immediate executions."
"The court should ensure that the death penalty would only be imposed on those who have committed extremely serious crimes" with extreme social impact, he said.
Doing so had made immediate execution cases drop steadily, he said.