BEIJING - China's newly revised Criminal Law has reduced the number of crimes punishable by death by 13 to 55.
The Standing Committee of the National People's Congress (NPC) passed the amendment to the Criminal Law Friday at its bi-monthly session.
It was the first time the People's Republic of China has reduced the number of crimes subject to the death penalty since the Criminal Law took effect in 1979.
"The move can be regarded as an effort to respect life and protect human rights," said Prof. Liu Mingxiang, deputy dean of the Law School, Renmin University of China.
The 13 crimes were economic-related non-violent offences, including smuggling cultural relics, gold, silver, and other precious metals and rare animals and their products out of the country; carrying out fraudulent activities with financial bills; carrying out fraudulent activities with letters of credit; the false issuance of exclusive value-added tax invoices to defraud export tax refunds or to offset taxes; the forging or selling of forged exclusive value-added tax invoices; the teaching of crime-committing methods; and robbing ancient cultural ruins.
The amendment is considered another move by China to limit the use of the death penalty, following a decision in 2007 that all verdicts involving the capital punishment should be reviewed and approved by the Supreme People's Court (SPC).
"To reduce the death penalty step by step is a good method for China," Liu said.
Mou Xinsheng, member of the NPC Standing Committee, told Xinhua that to reduce the number of crimes punishable by death is in line with international practice and fits China's reality.
"But it is not the right time to totally abrogate capital punishment in China," Mou said. "Incidences of crime remain comparatively high, especially violent ones."
Chen Zhonglin, dean of the Law School of Chongqing University, argued that, more importantly, the courts should be cautious and hand down as few capital punishments as possible.
"The final goal is to abolish the death penalty," he said.
According to the SPC, the court has overturned 10 percent of death sentences nationwide since 2007.
The amendment also stipulates that the death penalty will not be imposed on people aged 75 or older at the time of trial, except if they had committed a murder with exceptional cruelty.
Previously, only convicts younger than 18 when the crime was committed, and pregnant women at the time of the trial, were exempted from capital punishment.
The amendment, the eighth to the 1997 version of the Criminal Law, is meant to further cement the principle of tempering justice with mercy.
While exempting some convicts from execution, the law amendment imposes harsher punishments on crime gang heads, wage defaulters, offenders in food safety crimes and those convicted of forcefully removing human organs.
Criminal offenders who are convicted of serious felonies face longer minimum jail terms, according to the amendment.
Felons sentenced to life imprisonment should now serve a minimum of 13 years, not 10 years as before, while those given a death sentence with a two-year reprieve must serve at least 20 years, instead of 12 years.
Any one convicted of organizing and leading a mafia-style gang will be jailed for at least seven years and face confiscation of their assets, according to the amendment.
Under the old version, the maximum jail term for them was 10 years.
The amendment first stipulates crimes related to transactions of human organs.
Criminals convicted of "forced organ removal, forced organ donation or organ removal from juveniles" could face punishment for homicide.
Those convicted of organizing people to sell human organs could be imprisoned for a maximum of five years and fined, while those involved in serious cases could serve a term of more than five years.
The amendment confirms intentional wage default is a crime.
Chinese employers who intentionally withhold workers' pay will face up to three years in jail and those convicted of wage defaults which have more "serious consequences" could face jail terms of three to seven years.
It also raises the minimum penalty on offenders, who add toxic and harmful substances to foods and sell such foods, to at least one year in prison.
Under the old version, the minimum penalty for such offences is one to six months in police detention. Offenders can go home one or two days a month.