BEIJING - China's top legislature on Monday moved to drop the death penalty for 13 economy-related non-violent crimes in the latest amendment to the Criminal Law.
"The amendment focuses on limiting the death penalty by removing some of the death penalty crimes and restructuring China's criminal system," Li Shishi, director of the Legislative Affairs Commission of the National People's Congress (NPC) Standing Committee, said at a bimonthly legislative session that started on Monday.
The revision would cut the current 68 crimes punishable by death under the Criminal Law by about one-fifth to 55.
If passed, it will be the first time the number of crimes subject to the death penalty has been reduced since the People's Republic of China enacted its Criminal Law in 1979.
It will also be a major move by China to limit the use of the death penalty, after the Supreme People's Court (SPC) began to review all death penalty decisions in 2007.
The draft amendment also states that the death penalty is not to be applied to people above 75 at the time the crime is committed.
Previously, only those aged under 18 at the time of the crime and pregnant women at the time of the hearing were exempt from capital punishment.
A draft law or amendment usually receives three reviews at the top legislature before being adopted.
Wang Zhenmin, a criminal law professor at Tsinghua University, said the proposed reduction in capital punishment was an "inevitable trend" and a reflection of the country's social development based on the protection of human rights.
Most of the 13 crimes dropped in the proposal have rarely seen the death penalty applied in recent years. These include smuggling of relics and the faking of specialized value-added-tax receipts.
The amendment is also proposing that the maximum jail term for a life sentence be extended to 25 years from the current 20, as well as tightening probation on repeat offenders guilty of violent crimes.
"A well-structured implementation of both severe punishment and abatement works in line with China's policy of tempering justice with mercy," Beijing-based criminal lawyer Zhang Yueming said.
Under the amendment, criminals who provide information will not have their own sentences reduced. The provision was previously used to encourage criminals to help solve crimes.
"Some criminals have tried to 'sell' information on their illegal activities," and abused the system, Zhang said.
However, lawyers like Zhang remain doubtful of the effectiveness of the latest amendment. "The reduction of death penalty crimes is of limited significance as most of them are economy-related crimes in which executions are rarely applied," Zhang said.
Nonetheless, considering the social impact of some economy-related crimes, executions are applicable, said a legislative researcher at the NPC.
In a recent case, Yang Yanming, former general manager of a Galaxy Securities branch in Beijing, was sentenced to death for embezzling about 65 million yuan ($9.56 million) and misappropriating another 25 million yuan in 2005. Yang was executed in December, the first person employed in the securities industry to be executed in China, Beijing Evening News reported.
Yang's death later fueled nationwide controversy over whether capital punishment was suitable for economic crimes. Some people believed that keeping Yang alive would eventually help police discover what happened to the money.
The exact number of criminals executed in the country is unavailable.
More than 90 countries have abolished the death penalty and more than 40 countries that still have the death penalty on their books have not used it for more than a decade, according to Liu Mingxiang, deputy dean at the law school of Renmin University of China.
At least 1,252 people were reportedly executed in 24 countries in 2007, 88 percent of which took place in China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and the United States, the Guardian newspaper reported.
The amendment also stresses the protection of people's livelihoods and driving under the influence of alcohol, maliciously defaulting on wages and illegal organ trading have now been listed as independent charges.
The proposed reduction in death penalty crimes is a further step as the country seeks to tighten its grasp on the use of capital punishment, analysts said.
The SPC took back its right to review the death sentence in 2007, 26 years after it passed it to lower courts, and a series of subsequent miscarriages of justice have come to light.
An average of 15 percent of death sentences were overturned in 2007 and 10 percent were overturned in 2008, insiders told China Daily.